Strapped Police Run on Fumes, and Federal Pot-Fighting Cash

A member of the eradication team on foot in the woods near Redding, Calif. (Photo by Justin Scheck)A member of the eradication team on foot in the woods near Redding, Calif. (Photo by Justin Scheck)Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, his budget under pressure in a weak economy, has laid off staff, reduced patrols and even released jail inmates. But there’s one mission on which he’s spending more than in recent years: pot busts.

The reason is simple: If he steps up his pursuit of marijuana growers, his department is eligible for roughly half a million dollars a year in federal anti-drug funding, helping save some jobs. The majority of the funding would have to be used to fight pot. Marijuana may not be the county’s most pressing crime problem, the sheriff says, but “it’s where the money is.”

Washington has long allocated funds to help localities fight crime, influencing their priorities in the process. Today’s local budget squeezes are enhancing this effect, and the result is particularly striking in California, where many residents take a benign view of pot but federal dollars help keep law-enforcement focused on it.

To make sure his office gets the federal funds, Sheriff Bosenko since last year has spent about $340,000 of his department’s shrinking resources, more than in past years, on a team that tramps through the woods looking for pot farms. Though the squad is mostly U.S.-funded, the federal grants don’t cover some of its needs, such as a team chief and certain equipment. So, Mr. Bosenko has to pay for those out of his regular budget.

He doesn’t doubt the value of pursuing pot farming, which he says is often the work of sophisticated Mexican gangs and leads to other crimes like assault. But other infractions, like drunken driving and robbery, may have a bigger direct impact on local residents than pot growing, he says.

The pot money is “$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization,” he says. “That could fund three officers’ salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol.” His overall budget this year is about $35 million.

The U.S. Justice Department is spending nearly $3.6 billion this year to augment budgets of state and local law-enforcement agencies. In addition, the federal government last year set aside close to $4 billion of the economic-stimulus package for law-enforcement grants for state and local agencies. The White House also is spending about $239 million this year to fund local drug-trafficking task forces.

Much of the federal money helps local agencies go after sophisticated criminal gangs and hard drugs like methamphetamine. Even staunch supporters of legal pot don’t dispute the value of that.

The Obama administration’s approach to federal anti-drug efforts is evolving. The federal government no longer is pursuing a “war on drugs,” as declared by the Nixon administration 39 years ago, but is taking a less combative approach focusing more on stemming addiction, according to a comment by the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, in May 2009. Last fall, a high-ranking Department of Justice official told federal prosecutors not to target people who comply with state laws permitting medical use of pot, which exist in California and 13 other states.

But the administration continues to support federal aid to fight drugs, including marijuana, says a Justice Department spokesman. This is “supplemental” funding for local agencies and shouldn’t skew their priorities, says Arnie Moorin, assistant deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy. “It’s not to get into the city or the county’s or the state’s business.”

Even so, in California, budget realities mean federal money ends up supporting priorities sometimes out of sync with public sentiment. About 56% of California residents support full legalization of marijuana, polling shows. The issue will be on this fall’s ballot as a voter initiative.

Tight budgets prompted sheriffs’ departments in the state to cut more than 800 positions in the first three months of this year, out of about 30,000. Support for local law enforcement from the strapped state government will fall by $100 million this year, the California Association of Counties expects.

Shasta County supervisors told Sheriff Bosenko last spring that his budget this year would be about $2 million less than last year’s $38 million.

The sheriff laid off 26 people last July, more than 10% of his staff, among them 11 deputies. He eliminated a major-crimes investigator and cut nighttime patrols to two cars from four.

That slowed responses to emergencies, especially after midnight, when an estimated 20% of drivers in the largely rural county 150 miles north of Sacramento have been drinking. The county has higher rates of assault, burglary, drunken driving and domestic violence than big California cities.

To save still more, Mr. Bosenko closed a floor of the county jail and gave early release to 185 inmates, among them 30 convicted drunk drivers. “Those people will probably go out and drink and drive again and hurt people,” the sheriff says. “The criminals know that there’s very limited offender accountability due to our releases at the jail.”

With nowhere to lock people up, the county saw more felony defendants skipping their first court appearance. The percentage not showing up doubled to 35% after the inmate release, according to the district attorney, Jerry Benito.

While freeing inmates, the sheriff still had several hundred thousand dollars of federal money to spend on pot patrols, such as an operation that began at 4:30 one morning in May. The target was a camp far up on a steep hillside covered in Manzanita brush, discovered earlier in response to a tip.

As the sun rose, team leader Steve Solus sent a group of officers to approach the camp from the uphill side, using a Gold Rush-era cemetery as their base. The team included two federal agents working with the county pot team, along with Phoebe, a pot-sniffing Belgian Malinois.

At the bottom of the hill, other team members reached their starting point, a nudist retreat bordering the woods. Unable to reach the manager, officers snipped the chain on the retreat’s gate so the other agents could approach from down-slope.

Over two hours, the team members slowly surrounded the camp. They found it unoccupied. But someone had dug a 10-foot-by-12-foot hole in the hillside, lined it with plastic tarps and threaded a black hose to it from an uphill creek, creating a reservoir. Other hoses led from the reservoir to water nearby pot plants.

Only about 70 had sprouted so far. Areas for many more were cleared. “This could have 15 to 20 thousand” plants, Mr. Solus said. The deputies pulled up all they could find. It was a routine raid, with no arrests. Only 10% to 15% of outdoor raids result in arrests, Mr. Solus said.

Such federally funded efforts have ripple effects, beyond the sheriff’s department. When the pot busts nab suspects, they are fed into the criminal-justice system. Mr. Solus says his team referred about 75 cases to the local district attorney last year. The D.A. doesn’t get federal cash to help handle them.

If convicted, some are headed for California’s state prisons. But these are so overloaded that a panel of federal judges has ordered the prison system to release 43,000 inmates. (It has released more than 4,000 so far.) About 17% of state-prison inmates are there for drug offenses. In California, more people are arrested for drug crimes than any other offense, according to state data.

In Northern California’s rural Lake County, which applied for $275,000 in federal anti-pot funding this month, Denise Rushing, a county supervisor, says it is “a vexing problem” whether to accept such money. She worries that doing so causes local sheriff’s offices to skew their priorities toward pot busts and away from things that more directly affect residents, like property crime. At a meeting last month, Ms. Rushing opposed applying for the federal anti-pot funds but was outvoted by other supervisors.

Lake County’s sheriff, Rod Mitchell, says that while the debate over federal pot funding has grown heated in his county recently, he believes it should pursue federal anti-drug money because marijuana growers continue to populate rural areas. He says his department spends a small amount of its own money on administering the federally funded pot team, and he also pays a detective to work on pot cases out of his local budget.

In Fresno County, it’s an easy call for Sheriff Margaret Mims: She views her $275,000 or so in annual federal funding for anti-pot efforts as a clear good, “a force multiplier” that “adds to our ability to fight marijuana, especially when it’s on public lands.” Far from being seeing the money as skewing her law-enforcement priorities, Sheriff Mims says it allows her to put more effort into pot investigations she would try to do “even if we didn’t get this money.”

Mr. Solus in Shasta says marijuana growers are turning both publicly and privately owned woodlands into pot plantations. He contends that if the ballot initiative to legalize pot passes, “California will just become one big narco state, and the majority of the weed that gets grown here will be sold in other states.” Determined “to go out and arrest people,” he plans to use some of the federal funds for helicopter flights to spot pot-growing sites.

One sheriff’s department member he can draw on is Ray Hughes, a deputy who normally works regular crime-fighting patrols Shasta Lake City, north of Redding. Spending for that patrol has been cut, and there’s no money in the departmental budget to pay officers overtime. But the federally funded pot team does have money for overtime, so Mr. Hughes has started going on outdoor raids with Mr. Solus’s squad.

Corrections and Amplifications

In a previous version of this article, the second sentence of the first paragraph was omitted. The paragraph, datelined Igo, Calif., should have read: Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, his budget under pressure in a weak economy, has laid off staff, reduced patrols and even released jail inmates. But there’s one mission on which he’s spending more than in recent years: pot busts.

Write to Justin Scheck at [email protected]

– Article from The Wall Street Journal.