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Marin officials respond to outcry over new drug squad

Marin officials respond to outcry over new drug squad

Marin County supervisors approved agreements to fund a new drug squad Tuesday after a wave of criticism that included a protest outside a supervisor’s home.

The outcry erupted because the matter was placed as an item on the supervisors’ consent calendar, which would normally be voted on and approved without discussion along with other items. The item approved agreements with the Central Marin Police Authority, the Belvedere Police Department and the Tiburon Police Department to help fund or staff the unit.

On Monday, activists who support “defunding” law enforcement agencies protested outside Supervisor Katie Rice’s house to demand that the item be pulled from the consent calendar and discussed before adoption.

The supervisors did so on at their meeting on Tuesday. But before the discussion began, Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel said, “There may be some confusion about what is before you today. I just want to be clear this is not requesting additional funding for the sheriff.”

The $835,855 in county funds that will be used to fund the unit were initially allocated for the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force in the fiscal 2020-21 budget, which supervisors approved in June. At that time, supervisors responded to calls for defunding the sheriff’s office by removing $1.7 million from its budget and reallocating the money to unspecified racial equity initiatives.

The task force, which included Marin municipalities as partners and focused on drug sales as well as other crimes, was dissolved earlier this month.

“Not because member cities didn’t think it was important or effective, but for financial reasons,” Sheriff Robert Doyle told supervisors on Tuesday. “At the time we made it known to our partners that we would continue narcotics enforcement in the unincorporated part of the community, and there were a number of agencies that wanted to join that effort.”

The agreements that were ultimately approved by supervisors on Tuesday call for Tiburon to contribute $46,063 and Belvedere to chip in $16,408 during the fiscal year. The new unit will feature members of the sheriff’s office, the Central Marin Police Authority, the California Highway Patrol and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“The narcotics enforcement will be focused on street-level dealers and traffickers,” Doyle said. “The focus is not the user. We recognize that substance abuse to a degree is a disease.”

Doyle reminded supervisors that following the passage of Proposition 47 in 2014, possession of “dangerous drugs is no longer a felony, it is a misdemeanor.”

Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Hale, who led the Major Crimes Task Force before it was dissolved, told supervisors that there has been a “huge increase” in the number of people arrested in Marin for possession of heroin recently.

“At the patrol level, we just don’t have the resources to investigate those crimes,” Hale said. “Social media is being used to set up these transactions; it’s no longer street corner hand-to-hand deals.”

A number of public commenters objected to the use of county funds to enforce drug laws. They said drug arrests unfairly penalize non-White residents, and they called instead for increased funding for substance abuse treatment.

“I’m 100% against this new task force,” said Mia Lakritz of Marinwood. “I personally don’t believe this task force will make our county safer. Instead, it will disproportionately affect people of color.”

Joe McGarry of Fairfax said, “This is another attempt at the archaic war on drugs. At some point you have to say this isn’t working. Drug law enforcement disproportionately affects Black and Latinx people.”

Several commenters expressed an opposing view.

“Robert Doyle, I want to thank you for everything you do relative to any type of drug trafficking,” said Susan Lawrence. “I support any effort to eliminate any part of the drug epidemic.”

Lawrence said her nephew died in Florida after injecting a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.

“It is not a Black issue, it is not a Latino issue, it is not a White issue,” Lawrence said. “It is an issue in our community.”

Mark Dale, who founded Families for Safer Schools in 2010 after his son nearly died from a drug overdose, said investigative units like the Major Crimes Task Force save lives “that we will never know about because they take crap off our street that is deadly to our kids and citizens.”

While granting their approval for the new contracts to help fund the investigative unit, the supervisors took pains to reassure drug enforcement critics that they sympathize with their concerns.

“We are very, very cognizant that addressing the drug issue in Marin County is not just about law enforcement, on getting the drugs off the street or putting people in jail,” Rice said. “There are many, many of our county departments that are working on addiction, on treatment, on restorative justice. We are trying to address this holistically.”

Supervisor Damon Connolly said, “It is important to recognize that the county recognizes substance abuse is an illness, and we are actively working to destigmatize and support those seeking help with their substance use.”

Connolly added that it will be important to ensure that the new investigative unit doesn’t “result in the overpolicing of underserved communities and communities of color.”

Supervisor Kate Sears recommended that the sheriff read “The New Jim Crow,’’ a book that argues the war on drugs reinstituted Jim Crow laws by other means.

Doyle responded, “Supervisor Sears, if you send me that book, I’d be more than happy to read it and give you my thoughts. I appreciate it.”




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