After 13 years of participation in task forces with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the state Department of Public Safety has withdrawn its officers from the multi-agency effort.
The move continues DPS' eight-month trend of scaling back narcotics enforcement.
The state's largest police agency has been strapped for funds since at least last summer, resulting in sharp reductions in the amount of cash available for undercover agents to make drug buys and pay informants, DPS officers say.
The department also plans to eliminate a four-person legal unit that has collected millions of dollars' worth of assets seized from drug suspects.
DPS had three agents and two secretaries assigned to DEA's Phoenix task force and two agents assigned to a Tucson task force. The last DPS agent left the Phoenix task force on February 7, DEA officials say.
DEA spokesman Larry Hedberg says DPS' withdrawal will have "significant" impact on the task force, but added that the multi-agency effort will continue unabated. The task force will retain personnel assigned by other police departments, including Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale, Avondale and Scottsdale.
"The more participation you have from the other agencies, the better these task forces work," Hedberg says.
Earnest Howard, DEA special agent in charge of the Phoenix office, declined to comment on the reasons DPS gave for quitting the task force.
"We wish they were still here," Howard says. "The door is still open."
But DPS doesn't appear to be interested in rejoining.
DPS spokesman Bob Stein says the department can "better utilize the officers here in the department."
Stein says DPS participates in more than 20 task forces statewide and that DPS has reassessed the value of each task force and is making manpower adjustments.
One high-ranking police official says DPS' withdrawal sends a negative signal to other police agencies about the willingness of DPS to participate in joint efforts.
"It shows a lack of cooperation," the official says.
Undercover narcotics agents have complained repeatedly to DPS managers about a lack of funds. DPS lieutenant colonel Charles Warner says narcotics officers will have to make do with less money. Warner says undercover agents will use other tactics--including reduced criminal charges--to convince informants to assist the agency.
Last week, DPS announced it was eliminating two in-house attorneys and two support personnel who have handled about 160 asset-forfeiture cases a year. The DPS asset-forfeiture team has collected more than $1.8 million in the past five years.
DPS director Joe Albo says the division is being eliminated because he's opposed to a police agency also having its own attorneys prosecuting cases. Albo says police functions and prosecution should remain separate.
DPS asset-forfeiture cases will be transferred to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office beginning next month. The county already processes more than 300 cases a year. The county attorney has two attorneys assigned to the asset-forfeiture division; they process only forfeitures exceeding $500.
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The amount of assets seized by DPS has fallen sharply since 1994 after the state Legislature changed the law, forbidding police agencies from seizing assets in drug-related cases unless it could be shown the crime was committed for financial gain.
The Legislature acted after citizens complained about having assets seized before they were convicted of possessing small amounts of drugs, including marijuana.
The Legislature amended the law so that seizures of drugs kept for personal use no longer could result in the seizure of cars, houses, boats, aircraft or other assets.
Police agencies cannot seize assets of a suspect in possession of less than one gram of heroin, nine grams of cocaine, nine grams of methamphetamine and two pounds of marijuana.