On the same day last week that the Carroll County Narcotics Task Force announced it had rounded up a half-dozen drug dealers operating in Westminster, County Commissioner Donald I. Dell issued a stinging rebuke to critics of the operation. He said they were damaging the unit's morale and singled out "our media" as most responsible for the low esteem. Arresting these dealers and holding a press conference hardly seemed evidence of demoralization.
Certainly the purpose of the drug task force deserves support. No one opposes the apprehension, conviction and imprisonment of drug dealers. They are a cancer that, if allowed to metastasize, will destroy lives, families and communities. Nevertheless, when a government organization uses its position and the weight of its authority to violate fundamental rights of citizens, it should be criticized no matter how noble its intentions.
In the past month, two county judges, who have no special axes to grind, have found fault with a number of tactics of the task force. When defendants' lawyers found fault with the task force's car and truck seizures, their concerns were dismissed because of the source. But when the task force seized a $22,000 vehicle after its owner was found with microscopic amounts of marijuana residue in a pipe, no less a figure than Circuit Court Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. severely criticized the task force's seizure policy. Circuit Court Judge Francis Arnold also had harsh comments about the task force's cavalier attitude toward allowing informants with revoked drivers' licenses to drive around to make undercover drug buys.
Mr. Dell's colleague on the board, Julia W. Gouge, also has expressed concern about the lack of oversight of the task force. When the task force seizes property, it acts in the name of the commissioners. Yet the commissioners have no say in its policies and no oversight of its money. Only after considerable pressure did the task force agree to an audit of its funds, which come exclusively from property seizures.
Legitimate concerns about the policy and operations of the narcotics task force should not be dismissed because of their supposedly detrimental impact on morale. No human organization is above criticism, particularly those police organizations that act in the name of all of us. If anything, they deserve more scrutiny than others.