By Brian Livingston
Lauderdale County Sheriff Billy Sollie believes the only people who are happy to see the demise of the East Mississippi Drug Task Force will be the drug dealers and users.
"The FBI tells us that eighty-five percent of crime is done by those who use drugs," Sollie said. "With a drastically scaled down task force, it will be harder to keep the criminals in check."
Sollie said the East Mississippi Drug Task Force has had to reduce its numbers from 11 agents to just four because of a reduction in funding from the federal government.
"Drug related crimes such as thefts and burglaries are going to increase," Sollie said. "I'm concerned about what we may see in the months ahead. The increase in drug activity in our community will most likely go up."
The East Mississippi Drug Task Force started in 1992, Sollie said. At various times it has included the city of Meridian, Clarke County Sheriff's Department, and Kemper County Sheriff's Department, as well as Lauderdale County. Now Lauderdale County is the only local staffing and funding source.
The past several years the task force has included agents from the LCSD and the Meridian Police Department but since the announcement funds would no longer be coming from the federal and state levels, the MPD has pulled out of the agency.
"We have a dedicated Narcotics Division where we placed the two agents who were in the task force," said James Lee, chief of the MPD. "We have further developed this division so our officers and agents can eradicate illegal drugs from Meridian streets."
Lee pointed to two recent busts in which patrol, Direct Action Response Team (DART) members, and narcotics agents have confiscated large amounts of illegal narcotics and made arrests.
"We know our city," Lee said. "We are concentrating our efforts in certain areas of Meridian where we have seen drug activity. I have faith in our officers and agents they will continue to get the job done."
Sollie said with fewer agents on the task force the job the remaining four agents have will be a tough one. He said stakeouts and undercover activities to build cases will be much harder and take longer because of the loss of manpower. Sollie said with the loss of the MPD as a partner in the task force, the agency has also lost the ability to make the undercover drug buys it once did.
"The funds we used to make the buys has been cut in half," Sollie said. "We will have to be very choosey about when we buy and when we don't because we just don't have the extra funding we used to have."
And fewer personnel, agents on the operations, means a dangerous job just got that much more dicey.
"We don't have the personnel to use as backup," Sollie said. "We have to be extra careful in our planning and how we cover our people from being hurt."
Sollie said that despite having fewer agents the task force intends to focus more on the distributors that sell to the dealers as opposed to going after the low level street dealers.
"We will do the best we can with what we have," Sollie said.
By Brian Livingston
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