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Area narcotics unit threatened by loss of federal funding

PHOTO SUBMITTED / This glass pipe, which is used to smoke crystal meth, was confiscated as evidence from drug arrests made in Walmart parking lot in Brookhaven on Saturday. The Brookhaven Police Department and the Southwest Mississippi Narcotics Unit arrested three suspects, charging them with six counts of drug possession and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. The evidence will be sent to a drug lab in Jackson and officers expect more drug possession charges to follow when results return.

PHOTO SUBMITTED / This glass pipe, which is used to smoke crystal meth, was confiscated as evidence from drug arrests made in Walmart parking lot in Brookhaven on Saturday. The Brookhaven Police Department and the Southwest Mississippi Narcotics Unit arrested three suspects, charging them with six counts of drug possession and two counts of possession of drug paraphernalia. The evidence will be sent to a drug lab in Jackson and officers expect more drug possession charges to follow when results return.

Commander of the Southwest Mississippi Narcotics Unit Tim Vanderslice and agent Lisa Jackson are on a mission – to keep dangerous drugs off of your streets.

But, Vanderslice and Jackson are also facing a drastic cut or even job loss since money from the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal Byrne Grant is being shifted from anti-drug task forces to drug courts. The grant provides for the salaries of undercover agents like Jackson and Vanderslice and supports the work they do.

Vanderslice said it will be on city aldermen and county supervisors in their jurisdiction to fund their salaries once this cut goes into effect Oct. 1.

Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing said he feels this cut to task force funding will actually hurt the effectiveness and viability of drug court.

“Their moving of the money to drug court seems to be cutting off the very thing that gets people into drug court,” he pointed out.

“We’ve been working with them since about 2008, and they have been a great asset to the city and the county,” the sheriff said. “It will be a great harm to drug enforcement locally and statewide.”

Vanderslice said he has been getting the grant since the task force was formed 28 years ago.

“It’s not just our unit getting fund cut,” Vanderslice said, “the Regional Counter-drug Training Academy in Meridian, where a lot of our officers in sheriff’s and police departments get specialized training at no cost to us, is being cut, also.

“It’s going to get where cities and counties won’t be able to send officers,” Vanderslice added.

Agent Jackson pointed out that most of what they do must be done in stealth, so the general public is not aware of how much they are doing to keep drugs off the streets.

“We have a rapport with the citizens in the local area, and because we have this local knowledge and these relationships, we are highly effective at getting the mid-level to street level dealers off the street.”

She pointed out that agents in the Southwest task force come from the local police departments and sheriff’s departments.

“We work with them on investigations,” she said, “and any narcotics cases in these areas, we are called in.”

Five agencies make up the Southwest Narcotics Task Force: the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, the Brookhaven Police Department, Pike County Sheriff’s Department, the McComb Police Department and the Wesson Police Department.

An officer from each agency is assigned to the task force. These officers will have cases they are investigating, and they work hand in hand with narcotics agents like Vanderslice and Jackson.

Vanderslice said city aldermen and supervisors in these cities and counties should expect a visit from them in upcoming board meetings.

“We’re the third largest narcotics unit in the state,” he said. “And if the counties and cities could step up to help us with funding we could be totally operational without the Byrne Grant.”

Jackson said they will ask for the support of elected officials and be prepared to demonstrate the impact their work has in Pike and Lincoln counties.

“This task force has done a lot of work in these areas,” she said, “and we can’t do it without the help of our cities and counties. We get so tied up in doing our job that we forget there is a political side to this – that elected officials play a part in it, too. So, we will be stepping up and letting officials know what our task force does, how it operates and the importance of it.”

Rushing said he and others have been reaching out to other regional political figures for assistance.

“We’ve been talking to some Mississippi legislators about the need for the task force and alternative funding,” Rushing said, “and we’re hopeful, but it looks like this funding cut will be statewide