Nebraska law enforcement seizing more meth, federal funding dwindling for drug task forces

A close up image of crystal methamphetamine, the single greatest threat in the war on drugs according to Nebraska law enforcement. (Photo courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Agency)
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November 19, 2013 - 6:30am

As the federal government continues its war on drugs, Nebraska law enforcement says the single biggest threat is meth. However, the federal dollars needed to fund the fight are limited. This lack of funding could have dire consequences.


The problems associated with methamphetamine, or meth, are nothing new to Nebraska law enforcement. According to the Nebraska State Patrol, meth use began to increase dramatically in the late 80’s and early 90’s. It was during this same time frame the first of Nebraska’s 11 drug task forces began to form.

One of those was the Western Nebraska Intelligence and Narcotics Group, or WING. The WING task force is headquartered in Scotts Bluff County, but its jurisdiction covers all 11 counties of Nebraska’s panhandle.

Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman is WING’s operational coordinator.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman is the WING task force coordinator. He says meth first became a problem in western Nebraska in the early 1990's, when it was brought into the state by outlaw biker gangs. Now, Sheriff Overman says Mexican drug cartels are the primary pushers and manufacturers of the illegal substance in Nebraska.

“What we focus our efforts on is stopping the biggest and baddest drug traffickers. We are always looking for them and they are always pretty much here on our turf,” Sheriff Overman said.

The WING Task Force is made up of investigators from police departments in Scottsbluff, Gering, Sidney, Chadron and Alliance. The Scotts Bluff and Cheyenne County Sheriff’s Departments, as well as the Nebraska State Patrol, are also represented.

According to Overman, the primary benefit of a drug task force is the ability for multiple agencies to work together and share jurisdiction, making it easier to identify, track, and arrest drug dealers.

During the last three years, WING investigators arrested 114 people on meth-related charges. WING seized 11 grams of meth in 2011. This year, that number has gone up almost 1000 percent, with WING investigators taking 121 grams of meth off the streets.

For their efforts, WING has been awarded $160,000 in federal funding this year, money which will be used to offset officer salaries.

“I don’t even want to know what our communities would be like if we weren’t there to knock those guys off, because they would be running rampant,” Overman said.

The money WING received comes from a fund called the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant. Congress allocates how much money is put into the grant, which is administered in Nebraska by the Crime Commission.

“So we have to follow the same priorities that the feds are outlining as well as cost effectiveness of these funds,” said Lisa Stamm, the grants division administrator with the Crime Commission. According to her, application for JAG money is highly competitive, and federal resources have been dwindling.

Stamm said WING received the grant funding because of their success arresting mid to upper level drug traffickers--people with ties to the international drug trade.

However, the Southeast Area Drug Enforcement Task Force, or SEADE, hasn’t received JAG funding for the last two years.

Headquartered in Beatrice and serving the surrounding six counties, SEADE recently ceased operating after their request for $116,000 in JAG funding was denied by the Crime Commission’s grant review committee.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang was also the commander of the SEADE task force until it ceased operations. Chief Lang said SEADE was an integral part in curbing meth use and distribution in the southeast corner of Nebraska, and he is worried what will happen now that SEADE is no longer enforcing drug laws.

“They mentioned that this specific group focuses on street level buys, not mid-to-upper level drug trafficking programs, and they provided no demonstration of documentation of evidence of based practices,” Stamm said.

Beatrice Police Chief Bruce Lang was the SEADE commander, and took issue with the committee’s reasoning SEADE only went after low-level drug offenders.

“I think that’s the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever heard. All task forces go after the street level dealer, because you have to start there. We’re not going to send our investigators to Mexico to start working on the cartels, nor is anybody else,” Lang said.

JAG funding for SEADE has fluctuated over the years. For example, the task force received just more than $60,000 in 2007 and $100,000 in 2011. While the exact amount of meth seized was unavailable, Chief Lang said SEADE has arrested an average of 22 people a year on meth-related charges over the last four years.

The decision to cut off SEADE’s funding means for the first time in almost 20 years, there will not be a drug task force operating in southeast Nebraska. Lang knows budgets are tight, but thinks SEADE is just the latest victim of federal bureaucrats making poor decisions.

Image courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency

This map shows the number of meth lab related incidents across the United States in 2012. According to the Nebraska State Patrol, seven meth labs have been discovered in Nebraska in 2013. While the number of labs is declining, NSP Captain Mike Jahnke says the amount of meth being transported into and through the state has been increasingly during the last few years.

“The federal government likes new buzz words. They like new initiatives and new concepts, but a lot of times there’s only a limited amount of money. So you can’t explore those new areas without getting rid of something,” Lang said.

While there may not be a task force operating in the southeast part of the state, Captain Mika Jahnke with the Nebraska State Patrol said his troopers will still be operating in the area.

“We’re going to have to come up with some creative ways to fill that void, but we still will have an enforcement presence in those counties. We still are going to meet the needs that we have in those counties,” Jahnke said.

The greatest way to meet those needs, however, may be to keep the task force funded.

Lisa Sample is a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She’s been studying drug use and its effects on society since 1998.

According to Sample, in addition to making arrests drug task forces also alert communities to changing trends in drug culture.

“They provide information to the community about what they’re seeing out there. They educate people of what to look for, and anytime you get rid of the task force, you’re not just getting rid of the people that we're out there arresting--drug users and drug sellers--you get rid of all that kind of community involvement that law enforcement brings to an issue,” Sample said.

Just what impact the loss of the SEADE drug task force will have is unclear. However, it seems the need for more troops in the war on drugs has never been greater. In 2008, the Nebraska state patrol seized just under 12 pounds of meth in the state. This year, they’ve already seized 90 pounds of meth.

If you'd like to hear more about how Nebraska law enforcement is dealing with illegal drugs, be sure to tune into NET Radio this week for Marijuana Crossroads, a special in-depth reporting project by NET News examining the impacts on Nebraska from Colorado's marijuana trade.

And be sure to tune into NET1 on Friday at 7:00 p.m. CT for the premiere of the documentary Marijuana Crossroads.

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