Drug Task Force: Playing Dirty Again?


Chief Sam Leppo's decision to remove the Westminster Police Department from participation in the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force should serve as a warning sign. Of all the policy-making personnel involved in the task force the past five years, Mr. Leppo was its most responsible member.

Mr. Leppo hasn't explained his decision for pulling out, but he has been uncomfortable with the task force's conduct in the past. Although others resisted the calls for an audit to investigate task force finances, Chief Leppo did not. He opened his books to inspection by auditors and newspaper reporters. A year ago, he warned that politics was overtaking the work of the drug-fighting unit and was hindering its mission -- arresting and prosecuting drug dealers in Carroll County.

When county State's Attorney Jerry Barnes campaigned for election last year, he promised to reform the task force and end many of its past questionable arrest and seizure practices. To his credit, many of these reforms have been enacted. The task force is to be audited annually. It will no longer have sole control over seized money. Asset seizure and forfeiture proceedings have been separated from criminal action.

Despite these reforms, Mr. Barnes, like his predecessor Thomas E. Hickman, is following a potentially self-destructive course. He is becoming too entwined in day-to-day task force operations. Mr. Barnes' job is prosecuting lawbreakers, not policing the community.

Mr. Barnes' hand was evident in the recent addition of Deputy Sheriff Thomas Bader and Maryland State Police Sgt. George Butler to the task force. Both were involved in the highly questionable stop-and-strip search of then-county commissioner J. Jeffrey Griffith several years ago. Mr. Barnes provided the initial -- and apparently unfounded -- tip that Mr. Griffith smoked marijuana. He may want to reward his old buddies, but reuniting members of that discredited operation places the task force under an unnecessary cloud of suspicion.

The task force could again become a rogue law enforcement agency, relying on heavy-handed arrest and seizure tactics instead of thorough investigations. Should that happen, Mr. Barnes will have to take full responsibility. He also will regret Chief Leppo's departure.

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