Funds sought for drug task force

Craig Stedman (Lancaster Newspapers)

It was created some 20 years ago, after local law-enforcement officials "recognized that drug dealers don't recognize municipal boundaries."

And even in supposedly "safe" communities, such as East Hempfield Township, drugs are more of a problem than people often realize, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said.

So the drug task force needs municipalities such as East Hempfield, which have been forced to cut funding to the organization, to help keep it going and actively fighting drugs, Stedman told township officials this week.

We've lost some of "that sense of safety, that we as citizens have a right to live our lives," Stedman said.

"And that's in large part due to drugs and crimes committed to support drug habits," he told the supervisors at their meeting Wednesday.

Stedman spoke along with John Burkhart, a retired Lancaster city detective who since January has led the drug task force.

East Hempfield in its 2011 budget was forced to cut its funding for agencies such as the task force, libraries and the like, township officials said.

When the task force was created, municipalities had agreed to pay $1 per capita, which for East Hempfield would be $23,685, according to figures from the latest census.

The township cut its funding for this year to the task force to 50 cents a resident, East Hempfield officials said Wednesday.

The task force, which Stedman estimated is losing $200,000 a year and costs about $900,000 annually to operate, is making a similar request to all 60 municipalities in the county, the district attorney said.

Drug crimes "affect all of us," Stedman said, "and if we don't have a drug task force, this community, this county, is not as safe."

Burkhart, a 23-year East Hempfield resident, told the supervisors, "I would love to say there are no drugs in East Hempfield Township, but I know that's not the case."

In his years with the city, Burkhart said, he had to deal with plenty of serial burglars and robbers, and he found that "not one of those people didn't have a drug problem ... and all of them (eventually) hit somewhere in East Hempfield Township."

The task force had nine detectives when Burkhart took the helm in January. It now has grown to 11, including him.

Still, he'd like to see it expand even further, to 14 or 15 detectives, he said.

The task force needs funds not only for salaries but also for surveillance and other equipment needed in investigations - and also to buy drugs from dealers as part of undercover operations, Stedman pointed out.

It also is dealing with more synthetic drugs, such as bath salts, along with the more common marijuana, cocaine and heroin dealers, the DA said.

And it's not just drugs that the task force tackles.

When detectives learned that an Ephrata man wanted to hire a hit man to kill his girlfriend, a task force detective went undercover, posing as the hit man, and taped a conversation with the suspect.

The man was arrested, and the girlfriend's life likely was saved, Stedman and Burkhart said.

About a year and a half ago, Stedman told the East Hempfield supervisors that he was "close to shutting down the task force" as it faced manpower shortages.

"Numbers make a big difference. Obviously, the more people (police) you have storming a house, the safer it is," Stedman added.

The East Hempfield supervisors will soon be developing the township's 2012 budget, and they promised to consider Stedman's funding request as they consider the spending for next year.

The task force focuses on mid- to upper-level drug dealers, its officials have said, but it also can investigate local street drug transactions.

Along with the voluntary $1 per-capita contributions from county municipalities, the task force holds an annual auction of items seized as part of illegal drug activity. It also gets funding from the state Attorney General's Office.