They seized $7.3 million worth of drugs. How this Tri-Cities team is keeping streets safe

The force tasked with combating drugs in the Mid-Columbia seized about a brick’s worth of cocaine and sizable quantities of other illegal substances in 2018.

The Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force reported a banner year in 2018, participating in 231 incidents, 50 percent more than 2016, according to a year-end report.

Highlights include dozens of arrests and the seizure of $7.3 million of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opioids and even marijuana.

It arrested one fentanyl dealer, then the new dealer who moved into replace the first.

The task force formed in 1988 and has been managed through the Kennewick Police Department for about a decade. It focuses on disrupting the drug trade by focusing on dealers and regional distributors.

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg credits the increase in incidents to an increase in detectives, not a sudden surge in drug activity.

“The targets are still out there,” he said.

Retirements and turnover reduced the task force to five detectives in 2017, half the level of the initial team when it formed in 1988.

Today, it has seven — two from Kennewick and one each from the cities of Pasco, Richland and West Richland, as well as the sheriff’s offices of Franklin and Benton counties.

Benton County adding a detective

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher will assign a second detective to the interagency task force, while Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond said it could be a year before he’s able to consider replacing his retiring detective.

Hatcher said it will take time to fill the role, but he’s committed to assigning a second detective.

“It’s in the budget,” Hatcher said.

It will probably take until mid-2020 to get department staffing up to the level where the sheriff’s office can assign a detective.

“It takes a while to get people through the academy,” he said.

But Hatcher said it’s critical to keep combating drug crimes at all levels, particularly as drugs such as fentanyl grow more potent and deadly.

“If we don’t, you can imagine the ramifications.”

Metro is a collaboration of local law enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal investigators targeting dealers and distributors.

Strained resources

While Benton County is expanding its commitment, Franklin County is struggling with retirements in the sheriff’s office.

Raymond, who was one of the task force’s first commanders, said it will be a year before he will be able to consider replacing the Metro detective, who will formally retire on Oct. 1.

That’s one of four retiring from Franklin County this year.

“Four positions in a big department is no big deal. Four positions in a smaller sheriff’s department is a big deal,” he said.

The department has 28 commissioned officers, with 16 deputies on the road. That’s the bare minimum to ensure there are two deputies patrolling Franklin County at any given time.

“We’re a little understaffed,” he said, adding a laugh.

Raymond, who was one of the task force’s initial commanders, supports the mission, but said the federal and state funds that once paid the costs are mostly gone.

“As law enforcement leaders, we have to look at it and make it function a little different. Those (federal) dollars aren’t coming back,” he said.

The task force is housed at minimal cost at the Richland federal building. The detectives work for and are paid by their home jurisdictions.

Law enforcement officers, led by the Drug Enforcement Administration, search a single-wide mobile home at 14904 S 1977 PRSE in Finley. Officials said the activity was related to an ongoing drug investigation involving Fentanyl. Watch a video at:

2018 highlights

Kennewick — 85 incidents, 22 arrests and referrals and 18 search warrants.

Pasco — 59 incidents, 13 arrests and referrals and 10 search warrants.

Richland — 45 incidents, 20 arrests and referrals and eight search warrants.

West Richland — 10 incidents, one arrest and referral. There were no search warrants.

Benton County — 18 incidents, two arrests and referrals and four search warrants.

Franklin County — 14 incidents, eight arrests and referrals, 11 search warrants.

Drug seizures — Cocaine (2.3 pounds), heroin (25.7 pounds), methamphetamine (32 pounds), fentanyl, (101,088 pills), marijuana (402 plants, 100 pounds).

Legal outcome — 70 arrests, 33 convictions, four dismissals or not prosecuted.