Hickman's Aversion to Accountability

June 15, 1994

Complaints from the Carroll County state's attorney's office about having to store evidence seized by the Carroll Narcotics Task Force in Columbia rather than in Westminster ring hollow. Many of the state's 13 other drug task forces -- including those as far away as the Eastern Shore -- use the state police property room in Howard County without difficulty.

The change in storing evidence is not what is really bothering Carroll County State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman; it is the prospect that the drug task force he heads won't be operating with the autonomy it has enjoyed the past four years. By giving up control of the evidence, Westminster Police Chief Sam Leppo has also laid the groundwork for changing the agreement that allows the task force to seize property in the name of the city of Westminster. Without the city's cooperation, the task force will have to seize property in the name of the state or Carroll County. That's important, because the task force's unsupervised control over vehicles, money and property from drug suspects will end.

Control over these seizures is at the root of the controversy dogging the drug-fighting operation.

While seizing assets in the name of Westminster, the task force kept them for its own use and did not have to account for them to any other level of government. Task force members enjoyed that arrangement and don't want to change it.

Now that Westminster Mayor W. Benjamin Brown and others are concerned about actions the task force has taken in their city's name, Mr. Hickman's response is to divert public focus by making unsubstantiated claims that Carroll's drug enforcement efforts will be compromised by change. He also has protested that Carroll's auditors are demanding more than what is demanded of other task forces.

Mr. Hickman's claims are unconvincing. He is sending up a smoke screen to obscure what is really at stake. It is not the location of the evidence room or the persistence of the auditors. The real fight is over whether the drug task force will continue to operate without necessary supervision and oversight. For too many years, Carroll's narcotics task force has existed outside the normal checks and balances that govern other similar units. Appropriate oversight need not compromise drug enforcement efforts.

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