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When Small Towns and DEA partner to tackle drug trafficking

DEA Task Force Officer Program in Rural America

December 23, 2020

When Small Towns and DEA partner to tackle drug trafficking

DEA Task Force Officer Program in Rural America

Twenty hours west of New York City is Manhattan…Kansas, a place so different from its metropolitan namesake that it’s surprising to learn that 54 drug traffickers were indicted there in just one 2019 case.

Not surprising, the Drug Enforcement Administration was a driving force behind the operation. But it was a county police officer from the DEA’s Task Force Officer Program who masterminded the partnership.

The Riley County Police Department in Manhattan has an agreement with the DEA’s St. Louis Division, like more than 80 other departments across the region that makes up the DEA St. Louis Division’s area of responsibility. DEA uses Task Force Officers, or TFOs, as a force multiplier in carrying out its mission to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations. TFOs work full time with DEA, and are deputized – granted federal authority – by the DEA. As with their DEA Special Agent counterparts, TFOs are expected to conduct high level, multi-jurisdictional, drug and money laundering investigations. These investigations may take TFOs across town, across the state or half-way around the world in an effort to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations who inflict harm in communities across America, no matter where they operate.  

“Our region stretches from the western border of Kansas to the southeastern border of Illinois, and we rely on formalized partnerships with state and local agencies to expand our drug trafficking investigations,” stated Special Agent in Charge William J. Callahan, III, who heads the St. Louis Division, one of 23 domestic DEA Divisions across the United States. “More than 120 TFOs provide local expertise that is invaluable in addressing local trafficking threats. The reach they provide into rural areas would be impossible to duplicate.”

Officially called the DEA State and Local Task Force Program, the program seeks to develop highly successful drug investigations by combining federal expertise with TFOs’ investigative talents and detailed knowledge of their communities, businesses and geography, along with the relationships these officers have developed.

TFOs are found throughout DEA, in big cities, like New York, and in little cities, like Manhattan. They are sometimes deputized only for a specific case or, they can be designated full-time and typically serve for a four-year assignment. However, many are reauthorized to serve longer.

“This is a mutually beneficial relationship because in places like here, we are kind of isolated,” noted Dennis Butler, director of the Riley County Police Department in Manhattan. “DEA is often involved in investigations that have tentacles. One investigation ends up leading to another organization that they knew about, but didn’t know it was connected.”

The Manhattan case began when a Kansas State University student died of a drug overdose in 2017.  The investigation into this death led to a connection with a group that the police department was already investigating. With the existing partnership, it was easy for the Riley County TFO to bring the full power of the DEA into the investigation.

“Having the resources and the weight of the federal criminal judicial system when someone gets convicted is really attractive to us,” Butler said. “We prefer cases like this go federal, because we know DEA wants cases that get the most significant drug traffickers off our streets. We know they will go to federal prison and that makes our community safer.”

Located in southeastern Missouri, the Poplar Bluff Police Department is another participant in the St. Louis Division’s expansive TFO program.

“The value of additional manpower and resources, as well as increased successful prosecution rates, results in removing major players from the game in our community for longer periods of time,” agreed Poplar Bluff Police Chief Danny Whiteley. “Complex investigations also take a considerable amount of money, in paying informants and buying contraband, which makes it more difficult on smaller rural department's funding capabilities.”

One of the Poplar Bluff PD TFOs who has been working with DEA since 2012 offered his perspective of the value. “This program is extremely important in departments in rural areas due to their lack of resources to investigate drug trafficking organizations operating in their communities,” he said. To protect their ability to investigate, TFO names are not published publically.

The Poplar Bluff TFO recalled a 2018 DEA investigation where he was involved in tracking methamphetamine distribution in his community back to its sources. When the investigative team received information that one of their targets was involved in a local murder, they were able to help the local major case squad charge the DEA suspect with murder at the state level. That same investigation resulted in the federal indictments of 15 individuals on drug trafficking charges.

When thinking about rural communities, the DEA’s Garden City, Kansas, office comes to mind, as it sits in the middle of America’s largest prairie, the Great Plains. The DEA re-established their presence last fall to address the drug threat facing western Kansas, particularly methamphetamine trafficking.

“DEA is important to all communities, whether rural or urban,” said a TFO from nearby Finney County Sheriff’s Office, who recently signed on for a second term as a TFO in the DEA Garden City Post of Duty office.  “Agencies that don’t have the ability to dedicate manpower to drug investigations gain the most benefit from the relationship.”

“Sharing intelligence information by local departments, coupled with advanced investigative techniques and federal databases shared by federal agencies, vastly improves the successful prosecution and dismantling and disrupting of many major drug trafficking organizations,” added Whiteley.

Such relationships occasionally produce dramatic results as they did in the August 2019 case in Manhattan. What started as the overdose death of a university student led to a three-year, joint investigation into a fentanyl and heroin ring with origins in Chicago. The case culminated in U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister announcing the indictments of 54 defendants in Operation Chicago Connection in August 2019.

“It’s one of the largest operations we’ve ever conducted through the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the state of Kansas, and certainly one of the largest, if not the largest, takedown we have ever conducted,” McAllister said at a press conference in Manhattan.

“When we deal with organizations like we did in ‘Chicago Connection,’ people die, and other property and violent crimes are committed during the course of drug trafficking,” explained Butler. “When it becomes a federal investigation, it just opens up a much bigger toolbox of techniques you can use to build your case.”

Callahan summarized the impact of the division’s TFOs and their influence on investigations, “It’s hard to put a value on the TFO program and the relationships we develop as a result of having local law enforcement officers in our ranks. But if we did, it would be in the major quantities of drugs taken off our streets, the countless drug traffickers these enforcers have helped DEA put behind bars, the many lives impacted by these actions, and the gains in keeping our communities safe.”

For additional information about the TFO program, visit https://www.dea.gov/task-forces.

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