When police arrest a drug dealer in the Tri-Cities, they measure what they find in grams or ounces.
When federal agencies turn up narcotics, it’s weighed in pounds.
That’s what it means to be in what police call a “high-intensity drug trafficking area.”
It’s also one reason why the Kennewick Police Department has added one of its veteran detectives to a federal task force combating the Mid-Columbia’s illicit drug trade.
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Local and federal law enforcement working hand-in-hand is nothing new. But getting into the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Task Force represents one more step by Kennewick police to hit back harder against narcotics trafficking.
A high-intensity area
The Mid-Columbia sits at the eastern edge of the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which includes the I-5 corridor, and Yakima and Spokane counties.
Drug traffickers move their product along highways from Mexico into the Tri-Cities. Some of the drugs keep going north, while some of it gets distributed elsewhere, said Maynard and Police Chief Ken Hohenberg.
“You don’t see a U-Haul van going down the highway with a sign on the side of it saying, ‘I’m carrying drugs,’” he said. “It is a covert, secretive world involved in narcotics trafficking.”
The FBI’s Safe Streets Violent Gang Task Force turned up 20 pounds of cocaine, 48 pounds of meth, and 4 pounds of fentanyl and heroin in 32 cases involving the Tri-Cities in 2017.
That’s just a tiny snapshot of the drugs moving through Benton and Franklin counties in a year, Kennewick police Cmdr. Randy Maynard said.
And the DEA has been here the whole time, Hohenberg said.
“They’ve grown over the years because of the drug activity through the Pacific Northwest,” Hohenberg said.
The Benton County Sheriff’s Office and Pasco Police Department each have people assigned to DEA’s task force
But in recent years, Kennewick has been committed to leading the more regional Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force, and didn’t have a detective to add to the DEA’s force, Maynard said.
Sharing made easy
When the most recent opening came up for DEA’s task force, Kennewick police administrators decided to add a detective to the effort.
While the department is paying the veteran officer’s salary, the agency is picking up the cost of the space, the furniture and overtime.
The money from the public safety sales tax isn’t going to the position, Hohenberg said.
While the detective was on patrol recently, he was previously on the Metro Drug Task Force, according to police documents.
The DEA task force also shares space with the Metro Drug Task Force, Maynard said, making information easy to share.
“So many of these types of investigations involve street names, nicknames, monikers, those kind of things,” Maynard said. “You and I may be talking about a particular person that may or may not be a target of interest to a Metro investigation, and the DEA agents happen to hear our conversation and say, ‘Hey.’ ”
The information from the regional and DEA forces can help investigations across the country.
Much like the partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced earlier this summer, one of the biggest benefits is having cases be tried at the federal level, where sentences tend to be longer.
It’s sometimes difficult to see individual task force successes, Maynard said. Investigations take time, and the results aren’t always flashy.
But Maynard and Hohenberg expect that Kennewick being part of the DEA will decrease the amount of illegal drugs traveling through the city and the Mid-Columbia.
“Yes, we are going to put people in jail,” Maynard said. “We are going to take narcotics off of the street.”