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Westminster police end role on drug task force


Completing a process begun nearly a year ago, Westminster's police chief has pulled his department out of the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force, saying he is glad to break free of the group.

"I'm relieved that it's over and we're out of it, although it is unfortunate the way it came down," Chief Sam R. Leppo said yesterday. "Some time ago, I said that we would probably be getting out of the task force, and now is that time."

Westminster's departure from the cooperative law enforcement group marks the first major shift in the county's approach to drug enforcement in years. The group was comprised of members from the Westminster Police Department, the Sheriff's Department and the state police, and was responsible for all drug investigations in Carroll.

Now Westminster will employ two full-time sergeants to investigate drug activity in the city and the task force will concentrate on enforcement efforts outside Westminster, officials said yesterday.

The decision to abandon the task force came a year after Chief Leppo ceased tracking the group's finances and seizing suspected drug assets. But he did not make the ultimate decision. The new state's attorney, Jerry F. Barnes, and the new task force director, Sgt. Gary W. Cofflin, did.

Sergeant Cofflin, appointed several months ago, had recommended the transfer of all but two of the task force officers.

One of those officers, Sheriff's Deputy Mark Gonder, will transfer out of the group today, according to officials. He requested the transfer this week.

Earlier this month, Sergeant Cofflin ordered Westminster Police Sgt. Andrew McKendrick -- a member of the drug group since its inception six years ago -- to leave. That request helped accommodate the arrival of two longtime allies of Mr. Barnes', state police Sgt. George Butler and Sheriff's Deputy Thomas Bader.

When Sergeant McKendrick's removal was announced, Sergeant Cofflin said he was confident that Chief Leppo would name a replacement.

But that was never the plan, Sergeant Cofflin and Chief Leppo said yesterday.

Sergeant Cofflin's decision to oust Sergeant McKendrick came while Chief Leppo was vacationing in Colorado. The chief said he learned of the decision by checking his voice mail.

Before Sergeant McKendrick left the task force, Chief Leppo decided to reassign him to the city department's criminal investigation division.

Sergeant Cofflin said yesterday that he would have welcomed a replacement for Sergeant McKendrick but that the chief decided not to provide one "because he may have an agenda, may have manpower considerations."

The sergeant, in a subsequent interview yesterday, said he had been mistaken in the earlier interview and that he knew the Westminster police would not be asked to replace Sergeant McKendrick on the task force.

Chief Leppo, clearly angry at the way the ouster was handled, said his decision to take city police out of the task force had nothing to do with an agenda or "manpower."

Mr. Barnes, who pledged to take politics out of the task force during an acrimonious campaign against incumbent State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman in November, defended the moves yesterday and played down the significance of Chief Leppo's decision.

"Is this political? Absolutely not," Mr. Barnes said.

He said a turf battle between the task force and the Westminster police was not imminent and that the hiring of Sergeant Butler and Deputy Bader was a "police personnel decision."

Sergeant Cofflin said his goal was to "shake up" the task force in an effort to increase arrests and prosecutions. He called the task force's arrests of 57 people last year -- more than half of them from Westminster -- an "unacceptable number for a seven-member investigative unit."

"Being a supervisor, you have to figure out the best way to make your operation run," Sergeant Cofflin said. "I think we're well prepared to do what we're supposed to do, get the drugs off the streets."

It was amid the county's first audit of the task force's finances -- and its asset-forfeiture procedures -- that Chief Leppo first threatened to pull out of the task force.

In July 1994, the chief told task force and city officials that the extra work created by a 16-month county audit of the drug agency's finances forced him to step aside as the keeper of task force evidence, property and finances.

City officials later threatened to pull away from the group but were persuaded not to by Mr. Hickman and the county commissioners.

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