Blue Byline

A cop's perspective of the news and South Sound matters

WestNET story is compelling but lacking in context

Post by Brian O'Neill on Dec. 4, 2011 at 9:03 pm with 13 Comments »
December 6, 2011 6:48 am

After reading Sean Robinson’s exhaustive article on WestNET, the Kitsap-county based Narcotics Enforcement Team, one might conclude that the Keystone Cops are alive and well on the Peninsula. I don’t buy it.

The WestNET task force does seem to have an imposing range of issues, including a controversial former investigator now facing federal gun-trafficking charges, a comparatively low conviction rate, and a chorus of critics from legal circles. Despite this valid concern, this article’s broad assessment of a small group of cops misses the mark.

As usual, Robinson’s Trib article is well researched and precisely written. He provides several sharply critical quotes regarding WestNET’s activities, but since most are attributed to defense attorneys these are highly suspect. You may as well ask a Yankee’s fan his or her opinion of the Red Sox.

The article also outlines WestNET’s activities over the past decade and more. This is the impetus for a scathing review of the task force’s prosecution rate: fully one-fifth of investigations forwarded to prosecutors were declined. WestNET’s 80% prosecution rate compares poorly with Pierce County’s own TNET, whose far larger, better organized and federally staffed unit has successfully passed off 95% of its cases to prosecutors during a similar time frame.

But this is an unfair comparison.

In order to better understand, let’s look at the entities dubbed task forces. These groups are staffed with officers and agents from multiple agencies–municipal, county, state and federal–whose combined authority provides a wide range of enforcement options. With a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by participating agencies, a task force is given a regional mandate. This allows task force officers (TFO’s) to take their investigations up the ladder of a criminal enterprise with few limits on their jurisdiction.

In the case of WestNET, which operates in largely rural and sparsely populated Kitsap County, the task force has numerous disadvantages. Since the sheriff’s department has no street level narcotics unit, WestNET would be the only unit able to conduct these low level investigations, allowing it less time to investigate the upper echelons of narcotics trafficking.

Kitsap County’s rural geography is also a likely culprit for WestNET’s subpar conviction and incarceration statistics. Since much of the county is unfenced and forested landscape, it is very suitable for outdoor marijuana grow operations capable of producing a yield for customers far beyond its jurisdiction. These types of investigations require extensive time and effort, both by law enforcement aircraft and ground teams. The frustrating result for investigators, however, is that many marijuana grow op arrests are declined because of the new medical marijuana laws. Marijuana convictions also have historically resulted in shorter sentences than comparative cases involving crack, heroin or methamphetamine.

By these standards, there is little comparison to the Tacoma-Pierce task force known as TNET. Tacoma has long been a regional hub for narcotics distribution; its easy freeway access makes it a logical stopping point for drugs headed north, south, east and west.  Because the Tacoma Police Department has a large and well organized narcotics unit, TNET has little need to focus on street level dealers. Instead, many municipal narcotics units are encouraged to transfer higher level informants and cases to TNET because of the likelihood that federal prosecutors will assume the case.

Larger task forces have many advantages. A federal presence includes agents from ATF, FBI or DEA, as well as federal prosecutors who provide hands on oversight during the course of investigations. The fat federal purse also means better surveillance technology, which produces visual and audio evidence highly esteemed by juries. A larger unit will also have the benefit of expertise. A unit of ten or more members can be expected to have one or two gifted undercover specialists, an experienced core of investigators highly skilled at search warrant preparation and others with the varied skills required to put together these extremely demanding cases.

Lacking these advantages, WestNET is a regional operation staffed to handle a neighborhood.

There is, however, a legitimate red flag. The allegations of misconduct against retired Bremerton Detective Roy Alloway, a former WestNET investigator, are disturbing. If true, then this individual should never have been put into the autonomous and tempting world of narcotics investigations.

WestNET seems an unlikely choice for this level of journalistic effort. Though the fruits of the unit’s investigation bear little resemblance to TNET just down the freeway, the conditions, population and even the courtrooms are a completely different playing field.

In proper context, the “cowboys” of WestNET are just cops being measured with the wrong stick.

Leave a comment Comments → 13
  1. moms4marijuana says:

    Roy Alloway has been found guilty or pled out to federal felony firearms charges. He is awaiting sentencing. That is a fact.

    The rumor is what he told one citizen taxpayer whose front door he kicked down and then confiscated a shotgun from that home. “I’m going to go hunting with your dead daddy’s shotgun.” It’s not a rumor actually, the person blogged about it. Anonymously, I think.

    Roy Alloway is the downside of unions and associations. If the guild or union or association can’t police themselves, they’re all guilty. One for all, all for one. Brotherhood.

  2. Brian O'Neill says:

    Thanks for your comment. I am less concerned with Alloway’s criminal status (though I would be more likely to believe Robinson’s research suggesting the trial has not yet happened), than I am about the rest of the allegations against WestNET. Either way, I don’t operate on rumors, such as the one you cited, because I believe it to be irresponsible. I am sure you would appreciate that were you the victim of innuendo.

    I also take exception to your guilt by association reference. By that standard, all marijuana users should be labeled by the worst of their group. That is unfair. Instead, I believe you should redirect the blame at the unit’s supervisor, or in Alloway’s case, his police chief.

  3. Earth_watch says:

    I think M4M was meaning that if the union/association’s policies are bad (allowing for misconduct) then all those allowing for the bad policies to continue are somewhat responsible for the outcome.

    The “guilt by association” caution should apply to all areas. Not all cops are bad, but some are. A few demonstrators may be trouble-makers, but not all of them.

  4. notSpicoli says:

    I hold that few would complain about the effectiveness of the task forces, or even the costs, if this story was about heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, or other highly addictive, manufactured drugs. Few object to combating these scourges. (Though one may argue that the criminalization of addiction is not the way to do it.) 48% of all arrests in the US in the drug war are for marijuana possession. 51% of all arrests are for marijuana offenses.

    This is about marijuana prohibition and wasted time, money, effort, and misplaced priorities. The issue is that the greater part of the resources are being directed at that which is the least harmful. The short sentences and even refusals to prosecute are evidence of the lack of sufficient public support for marijuana prohibition to succeed.

    The true public safety risk of marijuana makes marijuana prohibition unnecessary.

    Marijuana prohibition is far more harmful and damaging to society than marijuana itself. And it is the police most closely associated with enforcement.

    It does not help that enforcement is frequently excessive, brutalizing, deadly (not to cops), and humiliating.

    It also doesn’t help that law enforcement is frequently associated with promoting and maintaining marijuana prohibition rather than being neutral enforcers of the law.

    It still amazes me that police officers (not administration) and their unions do not demand legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana. I truly do not understand why anyone would want to put someone in jail or risk dying or killing over marijuana.

    I-502 offers an option. And it is being sponsored and endorsed by judges, prosecutors, and retired law enforcement officers.

  5. Chippert says:

    Brian, it appeared to me that Sean’s excellent article was very clear in all aspects. My only complaint was that he spent too much time and detail on Alloway’s transgressions, making it appear that Alloway was largely responsible for the problems in WestNet when that is not the case.

    WestNet appears to be a prime example of accepting public money because it is available and applying it to a non-existent problem. The federal grant is explicitly provided to stop major drug trafficking and is not intended to be used to bust users or small-time growers, just because the local agency can’t afford to do that on their own. And that is exactly what it is being used for. The west-side agencies should never have accepted the grant in the first place, or discontinued the task force and refused further money when it became apparent that it is money ill-spent. Instead the continued to accept the funding, lying on the reports to make sure the money continued to come in. Every official that was responsible for that should be called into account.

    As for Alloway, whether you think it is a rumor or not, he is due for sentencing on June 20th so it appears that he either pled guilty or was found guilty. I know that this is really merely a side issue. I do have a question for you, as a former LEO though. I know a lot of anecdotal evidence from years of having known quite a few local cops that some officers have a “deal” to purchase confiscated firearms (or weapons that came into police position in other ways) directly without them going to auction, paying very little for them, and then keeping them for their own use or reselling them “under the table”. I personally think this is reprehensible, but since all I have are “stories” I have not pursued this. What is your take on this? What happens to confiscated, recovered, etc firearms?

  6. Brian O'Neill says:

    Chippert, with a unit having only three investigators, one “cowboy” can do serious harm to its reputation – especially when he/Alloway was in the unit for so many years. I do agree, though, that the federal grant was intended for enforcing narcotics trafficking laws on upper level dealers, but it is very unlikely that any city hall, county seat or state house would be willing to turn down federal money. That’s politics, and it’s done well above the pay grade of those discussed in the article.

  7. Chippert says:

    Yeah, I know. I don’t much fault the WestNet rank-and-file for doing what they are told to do except in those cases where it appears that the methods far out-weighed the need. To me the real story here is not the arrest and conviction record, etc. Those are merely symptoms. The real story is abuse of taxpayer money to keep this task force going without it doing what the money was intended to enable. Sean made a good case for this but unfortunately stopped short of making the point and story about it. He drifted much too far into “Cowboy Alloway” and the sensational aspects of that instead.

  8. moms4marijuana says:

    chippert, I believe sentencing is January 20th.

    Brian, thank you for tackling this.

    I cited my sources and called it a possible rumor so the you and your readers can give it credibility or not. I can’t remember which publication it was or if the author identified himself, or I would provide a link. I am familiar with the tone of the thread and have no reason to think someone would make something like that up. The confiscating of firearms and stated intended use of those firearms is the real issue here. Alloway was charged with illegally dealing in firearms.

    As for the one for all and all for one. There does seem to be a united front regarding LE when it comes to the public. I realize I might be going a little off topic, but how does it get as bad as this? Why wasn’t Alloway drummed out of the force in the early nineties when the bad behavior began? You say it’s a higher pay grade’s decision. Can they really fire a policeman? Is the guild’s sole purpose salary and benefit negotiations?

    Roy Alloway was the go-to guy regarding grow operations. It was his expert testimony in many alleged marijuana busts about how many mj plants equals how many ounces, often putting a medical marijuana patient in the dealer category. His integrity or lack of it led to the level of charges, the fines, and the possible prison/jail sentences of the accused. He was a little more than a cowboy cop.

    I have been the victim of rumor and innuendo, hence the cheeky screen name.

    Thanks again.

  9. Chippert says:

    moms, you are right. My fingers got way ahead of my brain on that. The sentencing is supposed to be January 20th.

  10. Objective says:

    Brian,

    You stated Chippert, with a unit having only three investigators, one “cowboy” can do serious harm to its reputation – especially when he/Alloway was in the unit for so many years.

    If somebody was in there for so many years, did the other two investigators ever notice? If he(Alloway) was such a “cowboy”, one might think the other investigators would have noticed and put a stop to it. Ultimately making them partially responsible and minimizing harm to their reputation.

  11. Brian O'Neill says:

    Objective- That truly depends on the type of allegations. The handling of an informant (confidential and/or criminal) is usually done by an individual detective. This involves identifying and developing the informant, vetting the subject for legal “reliability” and for subsequent scheduling of controlled buys. In this regard, the other members of the unit may not be privy to discussions between the detective and the informant. Anytime a police officer (or representative of a company in the private sector) comes under scrutiny for improper behavior it reflects badly on the agency. In this case, if the allegations (other than the felony gun charges involving post-retirement activities) are true, then Alloway’s agency would need to answer for his behavior.

    In regards to your other question, I am unaware of a “cops only” venue for purchasing confiscated property, including weapons.

  12. Earth_watch says:

    This statement is ironic:

    “The fat federal purse also means better surveillance technology, which produces visual and audio evidence highly esteemed by juries.”

    Considering that the last column tried to dismiss use of video as unreliable and audio as illegal, that statement seems to confirm suspicion of the previous article’s intent to discourage public from recording police activity, while reserving audio and video solely for police to use for their own purposes.

    This statement is also revealing:

    “…it is very unlikely that any city hall, county seat or state house would be willing to turn down federal money.”

    That federal money isn’t supposed to simply available for the tempting taking. Local, county and state agencies are supposed to prove a need and then provide proof the funds are being used appropriately. However, as this country continues to veer wildly into a McCarthyism mentality, millions of tax dollars are being poured into extreme surveillance systems and dangerous “link analysis” with virtually no oversight of their use.

    Sean said it well: “Federally funded …targeted low-level crimes and produced mediocre results.”

    Just like giving the wrong itchy-finger cop too much riot gear, having these kind of over-the-top intelligence systems are unnecessary and being used inappropriately.

    .

  13. Brian O'Neill says:

    EW- To repeat my last comments from the column on videotaping police, I don’t discourage responsible use of recording devices. If you want more of a reply I’ll refer you to my previous column and comments. The video and audio surveillance conducted during ongoing investigations differ, however, in two fundamental ways. First, a search warrant to record video/audio has been signed by a judge, and second the techs doing the recording have the ability to capture the entire incident from pre-determined angles. The jury then has ample time to view this footage, rather than the cherry-picked five second blurb on the evening news.

    Also, you may be right to suggest that state and federal money is perhaps not being wisely spent in WestNET’s case. That should be a valid concern for those officials, but again that has no bearing on the rank and file investigators inundated with low level investigations. And I see no relationship between giving federal funds unwisely and giving a cop riot gear. You can’t pay me enough to be a human target for bottles and rocks without appropriate protection.

*
We welcome comments. Please keep them civil, short and to the point. ALL CAPS, spam, obscene, profane, abusive and off topic comments will be deleted. Repeat offenders will be blocked. Thanks for taking part and abiding by these simple rules.

JavaScript is required to post comments.

Follow the comments on this post with RSS 2.0