Morro Bay police to join gangs and drugs task force

In a step Morro Bay police Chief Tim Olivas called “critically important,” the city will join a newly reorganized gangs and narcotics task force under the Sheriff’s Office.

The city hasn’t participated in a countywide drug-fighting effort since 2005, when it pulled out of the state-run Narcotics Task Force after budget cuts led to layoffs of four police officers and the department’s part-time staff.

Then, last year, the state Department of Justice announced it would stop funding two-thirds of the state’s 52 drug-and-gang-fighting task forces, including San Luis Obispo County’s program.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson proposed to form a new task force — now simply called the special operations unit — by beefing up the narcotics and gang task forces that existed under his office with officers or money from police departments throughout the county.

Doing so has doubled the size of the gang unit and increased the narcotics unit to about 15 people, including two part-time reserve deputies.“We have local control and local responsibility,” Parkinson said Friday. “I think we can be much more efficient than we were before. When we have something major, we have the flexibility of working 20 investigators immediately.”

Currently, an Atascadero police officer, a county probation officer and an investigator from the county District Attorney’s Office are assigned to the gang task force along with four sheriff’s personnel.

The narcotics unit includes 10 sheriff’s deputies and reserve deputies, a district attorney’s investigator, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent and one officer each from the Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo police. Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Cal Poly University Police Department and now Morro Bay are paying into the program.

For cities with fewer than 20,000 residents, Parkinson has requested they contribute $20,000 a year if they can’t provide staffing for the unit. Those with larger populations are asked to contribute funds equal to the salary and benefits for a deputy sheriff, about $125,000, so Parkinson can add another person to the unit.

Paso Robles has not contributed a person or funding; Parkinson said he has not yet talked in depth about the new unit with Paso Robles police Chief Lisa Solomon.

However, declining revenue forced that city to make deep cuts in personnel in the past four years. In December, the city hired police officers for the first time in four years.

The Morro Bay Police Department has 18 sworn officers, including two detectives who work investigations, but not solely narcotics, Olivas said.During a midyear budget review Tuesday, the Morro Bay City Council agreed in a 3-2 vote to use $10,000 left over from a contract with the county Animal Services Department to join the special operations unit for the rest of this fiscal year.

“Forming a local unified front is what we need to combat narcotics and gangs in our county, so it’s critically important for us to get involved,” Olivas said.

He said the department is aware of gang members in the city but declined to say how many live there.

Morro Bay Mayor Bill Yates voted against reallocating the funding. On Friday, he expressed concern over the way the state-run narcotics task force had handled some cases, particularly the arrests of 12 local medical marijuana providers in December 2010.

Of those 12 cases, nine have been dismissed.

“I have a hangover with the last task force, the way they behaved, the way they treated citizens and the way they operated,” Yates said. “The new task force is exactly that — it’s brand new. It seems better to wait and see how they’re going to operate before we fund it.”

When asked about how the special operations unit will approach cases involving medical marijuana, Parkinson said the unit will handle such cases very carefully.

“Marijuana is a big contentious issue right now because we can’t seem to get anyone to clarify the law,” he said. “We will tread lightly and try to make sure that we have clarity between what’s illegal and legal the best we can.”