The local police task force takedown of drug houses Jan. 16 netted 54 arrests on-site. Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said the offenders with “dealer amounts” of dope are looking at prison time.
“As you can imagine, most of the folks we’re dealing with that day are prior convicted felons,” he said.
Many who ended up in handcuffs were targets for selling drugs, Roberts said, but others were offenders with warrants or in possession of drugs when arrest teams knocked on the door.
Operation Wildfire also put new charges on as many as 16 offenders who were in jail or prison and resulted in the seizure of 1.25 pounds of methamphetamine, three guns and a set of brass knuckles, according to information from the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team, plus the recovery of a stolen car. Roberts, who oversees the team’s board of directors, said the Oregon Department of Human Services was involved in the cases and placed 16 children into protective custody; most went to live with relatives.
The latest big show from BENT involved seven months of investigating drug activity in Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties, and the execution of multiple search warrants leading up to last week’s busy day of arrests. Umatilla County District Attorney Dan Primus said he considers his office part of BENT, and his chief deputy, Jacklyn Jenkins, who has worked for years with the team and its detectives, was ready for the influx of cases.
“We knew all the information involving each individual,” Primus said, “and which individuals were appropriate for charges and which charges were appropriate.”
Primus also called Wildfire a boon for local communities. He and his family are in Pendleton, he said, and this police work makes the community feel safer.
Roberts said sweeps like this let drug dealers know BENT is here and not going away, but the measure of success is difficult to quantify.
“The subjective standard for us is how soon can we start buying drugs again in the community,” he said.
Big busts leave a “dry up effect” in their wake, Roberts said, which comes from taking drugs off the streets and from drug suppliers recognizing the area is hot with cops and not the best place to do business. Removing children from dangerous situations is itself a win, he said, and seizing the weapons could save lives.
“There’s so many ways to analyze this, basically you can’t put a realistic number on it,” he said.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy, however, put BENT on a number — $130,000. That’s the funding the federal agency provided to the team for 2018-19 to fight the drug war in Umatilla County and other federally designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. BENT also receives a little money for police sales of property seizures.
The team consists of officers, detectives, and agents from local law enforcement, Oregon State Police and the FBI. Those agencies cover the wages and benefits of their personnel on the team.
Roberts said the amount of federal money fluctuates from a low of about $110,000 to a high near $135,000, and the federal budget cycle differs from the city’s cycle, creating a bit of a dance to cover costs. The team’s funds go to a variety of activities, from leasing cars to stay under the radar of bad guys to paying informants. That $130,000 is not much, Roberts said, so BENT is frugal.
BENT can sustain itself for a few years if the feds cut the money, he also said, at least long enough until a new funding strategy comes along.
The team for the past several years focused on taking down bigger drug suppliers and the heads of criminal organizations. Wildfire was a turn toward the neighborhood. But drug busts at either end produce plenty of offenders willing to talk and cut themselves a deal.
Roberts said the situation resembles a “huge game of tag” with offenders “tagging” someone else so they can get out of a jam.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “if you don’t want to get jammed up, don’t get involved in the activity.”