MINT refresh?

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

May 10, 2006

Hood River County law enforcement agencies are struggling to keep up with identity theft and other crimes related to methamphetamine use.

Local officials believe that more manpower is needed to hold ground in that fight. But budget constraints in recent years have limited the working hours of the Mid-Columbia Interagency Narcotics Taskforce.

“In time and manpower, meth crimes are burying us. We could have MINT working 24/7 and still not be able to address the problem,” said Sheriff Detective Gerry Tiffany.

“My caseloads involving identity theft and associated frauds are dramatically increasing,” said Police Detective Stan Baker.

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has joined the Caucus to Fight Meth on Capitol Hill. He and 159 other House members want to reverse a government trend to lower funding levels for drug enforcement.

Members of the caucus are seeking to bank $900 million next year for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Association Grant program.

Walden said the 2006 proposal for $1.1 billion in Byrne dollars ended up being reduced to $410 million. He said that monetary amount dipped below the $634 million appropriated by Congress in 2005.

“We need to ensure that law enforcement has the tools and resources necessary to help win this fight against meth,” said Walden.

Jerry Brown, chief deputy for the sheriff’s office, said Hood River County received $6,000 of Byrne funding last year. He said that might not seem like a large amount – but it makes a lot of difference when the budget is tight.

He said this year the county is probably going to have to shoulder about $150,000 more as its share of NORCOR costs. So, he is encouraged by the possibility that federal officials could double the Bryne monies that are channeled through the state Department of Justice.

“The problem is getting larger and we just don’t have the extra dollars to deal with it. So, the bottom line is that we need this funding to stay in business,” said Brown.

As the federal debate wages, MINT is struggling to track down drug dealers in Wasco and Hood River counties – without incurring overtime costs.

Tiffany said 100 times more arrests were made for meth crimes in the county during 2005 than any other illegal substance, including marijuana. And 95 identity theft crimes came across his and Detective Bob Davidson’s desks during 2005.

He said MINT officers are working around the clock against addicts who are wired on chemicals and up all night committing crimes. He said draining someone’s bank account seems to be the primary way that many users finance their habit.

“We might not have the same resources as a larger agency but we have the same problems,” said Tiffany.

An example of the problem, he said, is the recent case involving Robert Earl Ross of White Salmon. Ross pleaded guilty to charges of identity theft after being caught in Hood River with mail belonging to 200 crime victims. A small amount of meth and a burglary kit were also found inside his vehicle.

One out of every 20 persons is now targeted by an identity thief. And that number is expected to climb to one in four persons within the next five years, according to Detective Ed Hewitt of American Criminal Investigators Network.

Hewitt, a nationally known expert on identity theft, briefed local law enforcement officials about the growing problem last fall.

He said identity theft during 2000 accounted for a $2.5 billion loss in financial markets. By 2005, that number had skyrocketed to $8 billion – and continues to rise.

“The problem is that it takes a long time to get these cases to a prosecutable level because there are so many loose ends to track down,” said Baker.

Last year, Walden held seven meth summits around Oregon to learn more about the scope of the problem. He wanted to discuss what could be done by federal officials to assist state and local professionals.

The first step, said Walden, was to stop a reduction in funding levels that helped put dealers behind bars. He is pleased to have House support for the added Byrne grant dollars. But, he said citizens need to encourage legislators in both the House and Senate to retain that level of funding during final budget negotiations.

“I think there is a growing understanding in Washington, D.C., of the need to help local law enforcement fight the war on meth and other drugs in our communities,” he said.

In late March, Walden and other members of the meth caucus wrote a letter to House Budget Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, and ranking member John Spratt, D-S.C., urging them not to reduce the $900 million funding recommendation. That document outlined that Bryne dollars had helped police officers dismantle 50,000 clandestine meth labs since 2001.

Walden said the state of Texas has already eliminated its anti-drug task forces and other states may follow that same path without more financial help. He believes the need for more enforcement funding is critical with a report by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez stating that the number of meth labs nationwide has quadrupled in the last 10 years.

“Local law enforcement agencies are stretched thin battling the overwhelming scourge of meth. These resources are imperative to their continued ability to root out meth cooks, addicts and traffickers — especially those using, making and selling this poison in front of children — out of our communities,” said Walden.

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