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VOL. 122 | NO. 141 | Monday, July 30, 2007

25th Judicial District Creates New Drug Task Force

By Amy O. Williams

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IN CHARGE: John Thompson is director of the 25th Judicial District Drug Task Force, the formation of which became effective July 1. -- Photo By Amy O. Williams

When Mike Dunavant took office as attorney general of the 25th Judicial District last year, just three municipalities in his five-county district were actively participating in the West Tennessee Drug Task Force.

So it didn't take long for him to realize he needed to do something to get all of the law enforcement agencies from Tipton, Fayette, Hardeman, McNairy and Lauderdale counties to work together. Dunavant said he is unsure why the various departments throughout his district were no longer participating in the regional effort, but he knew it needed to be fixed.

"All I knew was I needed to establish some good relationships with law enforcement," he said. "And in order to be effective in enforcing drug operations, I needed to have everyone on board."


Strength with fewer numbers

Dunavant accomplished that by withdrawing the 25th district from the West Tennessee Drug Task Force, applying for funding and forming the 25th Judicial District Drug Task Force.

About 175,000 people live in the five counties in the district, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, with Tipton and Fayette counties having the largest populations.

The formation of the new task force became effective July 1, and Dunavant said the response from the agencies in his district has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I have the full participation and cooperation of 13 agencies in my district, as opposed to just two before," he said.

The other districts in the West Tennessee Drug Task Force - the 28th, 29th and 30th - were notified by Dunavant of his decision. He said the three district attorney generals were supportive.

"I can understand why Mike took the steps that he did," said Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, whose district is the 30th. "It was pretty obvious to us that Mike was having some difficulty getting participation by his local law enforcement agencies in the 25th district who felt more comfortable with the standalone task force, and I understand that."


More funds to go around

The West Tennessee Drug Task Force was formed in 1999, and until June 30, included law enforcement agencies from four judicial districts made up of 11 counties in West Tennessee: Crockett, Gibson, Haywood, Dyer, Fayette, McNairy, Tipton, Lake, Shelby, Lauderdale and Hardeman.

Without the 25th district, the West Tennessee Drug Task Force won't cover as much of the region as before, but Gibbons said the remaining counties in the multi-district task force could see a financial benefit from the withdrawal of the 25th district.

"From a financial standpoint, it will probably help the multi-district task force because we were supplementing the operations in the 25th district," Gibbons said. "We were putting more funding into the operation from the 25th district than we were getting back."

Each judicial district in Tennessee is allotted a little more than $67,000 each year for its drug task force. The rest of the budget comes from matching funds from the counties in the district and from asset forfeitures resulting from drug arrests and prosecutions.

That money funds salaries and other operating expenses such as undercover drug buys. Because Shelby County is the largest district in the task force and has the largest number of asset seizures, it contributes the most money to the task force and supplements the other districts.


Regional to less regional

The 25th district joined the West Tennessee Drug Task Force in 2002, when Elizabeth T. Rice was its attorney general. Over the years, the participation of the local law enforcement agencies in the regional drug task force had declined until just three municipalities in the five-county district had agencies participating - Selmer and Halls in McNairy County and Whiteville in Hardeman County.

Dunavant said his district might have just been lost in the shuffle of a large regional task force.

"The regional (task force) idea was a good idea if you could have gotten everybody to participate," he said. "I didn't know what to do about the lack of participation, so I went out on a limb.

"But I am responsible for prosecuting drugs and I want to actually do something about it in more than just two counties."

With the new task force, Dunavant's intention now is to focus his efforts on the five counties in his district. He said he does, however, expect to maintain a working relationship with the West Tennessee Drug Task Force in the future.

"(My district) surrounds Shelby County and borders all of those districts," he said. "We will continue to share intelligence with those district attorneys and we will continue to work together."

Dunanvant appointed a new director, John Thompson, a nearly 20-year veteran drug officer with the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department, to head the 25th Judicial District Drug Task Force. He also appointed former Selmer police officer Kim Holley as the task force's assistant director.

Thompson, along with the 13 sheriff's and police chiefs in the drug task force, are energized with the idea of a fresh start, Dunavant said.

"I feel like the participation is obviously a lot better," he said. "Those agencies that have agreed to assist and participate are excited to start this."

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