APD looks to expand

When police make a drug bust, it's likely some of the money and property seized will be used to help expand APD operations.

The Ashland Police Department has participated in a Drug Enforcement Administration task force since 2000 and used seized funds to pay for everything from new furniture and carpeting to cameras in their cars and high-tech fingerprint equipment.

Once assets are seized, officers must convince the courts that the funds came from illegal activity. Then the money gets divided among all agencies that assigned an officer to the task force, who must spend the money on extras not in the general budget, such as officer training, equipment or station improvements.

If Police Chief Terry Holderness gets his wish, the money returned to Ashland will eventually go toward a major police station expansion. A facilities study presented to the City Council at the end of June identified renovation of the cramped quarters at the police station as one of five immediate or critical needs for city facilities.

The 6,400 square-foot station houses the equivalent of 36 full-time employees and about 30 volunteers who come by intermittently.

"We do a lot of shuffling of offices around here," Holderness said, citing the four-man investigation team that works together in one small room. "It's not an optimal situation to see everyone stuffed together."

The station also lacks a space large enough to brief the staff after a major incident or in preparation for Halloween or the Fourth of July. Any time they want to hold a major training, they must rent out costly space in a local hotel.

Holderness would also like to see a larger lobby area that would make visitors feel more welcome and allow police to conduct interviews and fingerprinting without escorting guests into the depths of the station.

"It's not a friendly place," he said. "A lobby should be a friendly place."

The biggest space shortage, however, is in evidence storage, Holderness said. The department has resorted to renting space to store non-critical evidence.

"That's not generally the best place to put police evidence, but we have to put it someplace," he said.

The facilities study estimated the total cost of expanding the station, including inflation, around $1.1 million. The federal asset forfeiture program returns widely varying amounts each year, from $50,000 in fiscal year 2007 to nearly $200,000 in fiscal year 2005, Holderness said. The state of Oregon also restored its asset forfeiture program this year, which could contribute some additional funds.

The federal program requires that all funds be spent within two years, however, so the police would have to see two high years in a row to contribute significantly to a station expansion. For now, Holderness waits to spend his money until the last year possible in case he does see enough for a down payment on station improvements.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said funds from the asset forfeiture program would likely make up 20 to 30 percent of the improvement budget if a station expansion is approved.

"With the exception of community development, engineering and fire station one, we have a space crunch," she said. "Pretty much every department has either outdated facilities that aren't working for them anymore or not enough space."

The police are the only city department that still has a special revenue fund like asset forfeiture that the city can spend on itself, she said.

A station expansion is not the most far-fetched possibility. When Holderness worked in Fontana, the nearby Colton Police Department used its funds to build a full gym with exercise equipment for its officers. In Fontana, he used the money to purchase part of a computer-aided dispatch system and vehicles for narcotics officers.

The Medford Police Department has been part of the same DEA task force for the past two years. Sergeant Phil Eastman estimated they have received around $10,000 for their involvement.

"It hasn't been a mother lode, but its certainly been a help," Medford Deputy Chief Tim George said.

The money their drug unit has received so far has gone to help further drug investigation needs, including the purchase of evidence and information, he said. Because they have been part of the task force for such a short time, many of the cases they worked on are still in the court system and the funds have not been awarded.

Both George and Holderness agree that being part of a federal drug task force brings several benefits, and they view the money is a nice bonus. The task force helps expand the resources of a small town, where undercover officers are too-easily identified, Holderness said, and helps develop relationships between agencies.

"Anytime you can develop that marriage with your federal partners, and you can leverage funding and resources, that's a good thing, and fighting a drug war is all about funding and personnel resources," George said.

Asset forfeiture programs have been criticized for motivating police with money and not fighting crime, Holderness said, but the program only puts a small dent in his nearly $6 million annual budget.

"It's a pretty small percentage of the budget, but it gets you those things you couldn't otherwise get," he said. "We're always careful. We try to chase crooks and not money. It's easy to do it the other way around, but there are safeguards in the system."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.

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