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.