Upon being elected last fall, new Harvey County Sheriff Chad Gay lined out goals he wanted to accomplish once he took office. One he wanted to take priority was the re-establishment of the Harvey County Drug Task Force, something that was discussed at multiple levels of government over the past year.
Gay and the sheriff's department took steps towards that goal recently, promoting deputy Jeff Van Horn to investigator (to fill the position vacated by new undersheriff Shawn Chapman). A couple of weeks ago, they then assigned him to work jointly with Newton Detective Mitch Nedrow on drug cases in an effort to expand that work back into county.
"A huge part of the drive was to get out and get involved with the drug investigations, to see if there was some way we could reduce property crimes by dealing with the drug issue," Gay said. "A ton of burglaries, theft, those property crimes, a lot of that is related to drugs."
Started as a joint effort many years ago, the Harvey County Drug Task Force was comprised of a detective from the Newton Police Department and one other agent (usually from the sheriff's office) that was funded by the rest of the county cities.
Newton Police Chief Eric Murphy noted drug investigations were still being done in the county as recently as five years ago, though the funding for an additional agent had been absorbed into the city budget and the NPD was the only agency involved. Those factors, along with departmental changes, led for the focus of drug investigations to be placed solely on the city of Newton, though Murphy knows it is not an isolated issue by any means.
"It's not a city of Newton problem. It's not a Harvey County problem. It's a problem nationwide with drug usage," Murphy said. "It's not spreading to other county communities; they have always had an issue whether they notice it or not."
Crime knows no jurisdictional boundaries, as Murphy pointed out, and drug cases can cross into other county and regional communities. With just one detective working those cases, though, collaboration can be key.
Part of the goal in re-establishing the drug task force is fostering a collaborative relationship among local agencies. While both Murphy and Gay know that the smaller departments may not be able to donate any manpower to the task force, working with the NPD and sheriff's office and letting them know about any drug-related activities in their communities would be beneficial. Murphy noted they have already taken some steps towards that as the local chiefs of police and sheriff have had regular meetings over the past year to discuss community issues, as well as other programs they would like to see implemented.
Minimally, if all county cities were to revert back to funding a portion of the drug task force, Murphy noted that alone would be a great help, as being properly funded (to purchase equipment, facilitate buys, etc.) could affect the overall impact of the unit.
"A drug task force needs resources in order to properly operate," Murphy said. "Anything that is done in Newton or in Harvey County helps the entire problem in the county."
Currently, there is no line item in the NPD's budget to purchase said resources. Money to secure that type of equipment comes solely from the department's forfeiture funds, which itself is meant to be a deterrent to drug crime. That amount can vary, with the department securing $105,492 through those funds in 2015, the most recent numbers available.
Expanding the task force could also take some of the burden off Nedrow, who noted at a previous meeting he normally works about 130 cases per year (leading to around 50 arrests) in Newton alone. Doing some of the routine work related to drug investigations requires multiple agents, meaning the NPD has to loan out officers from other departments in some instances, which presents some issues as well.
"If you're going to do drug operations, you need to be committed to do that," Nedrow said.
"Those guys are busy and there's a lot of business out in our county for those guys to be involved in," Gay said.
Having the additional agent from the sheriff's office has already proved fruitful, as Gay noted a raid was effectively executed this past week. In addition, having an extra agent increases the safety of the task force's operations.
Getting funding will only help the joint effort in the future, but more than that, both Gay and Murphy hope the county cities will be open and receptive to cooperating in order to tackle the drug issues throughout entire county.
"We want to be able to make as big of an impact as we can on that and I think we're getting a good start with the way that the partnership that the sheriff's department and the police department is currently working on with the drug task force, but we also need the cooperation of the other communities within Harvey County," Murphy said. "The reformation of the drug task force will allow us to get out into other communities and deal with the problems that may be coming back and forth between those communities and the city of Newton and hopefully disrupt some of the drug trade that is taking place."