Citing dwindling manpower and a new focus on community-oriented policing, Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti has ended the department’s relationship with URGENT, the countywide drug and gang task force. The move is the latest blow to an operation that has been held up as a model of big-picture police work and inter-municipal shared services.
“The working relationship is still there, it’s just that I, as an administrator cannot be sending officers outside the city and footing the bill,” said Tinti. “Right now I need all hands on deck.”
The Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team was founded in March 2007 by then-newly elected Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum. The task force combined personnel from the sheriff’s office, Kingston police and a number of other agencies, including small-town police departments, the county probation department and district attorney’s office and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Working from a headquarters at the Ulster County Law Enforcement Center, URGENT carried out investigations throughout the county and beyond with an emphasis on undercover narcotics operations aimed at gang members. The task force also played a key role in investigating shootings, assaults and other incidents of mayhem where gang or drug involvement was suspected. Proponents of URGENT touted the task force’s ability to pool intelligence and assets and attack drug and gang crime on a regional, rather than a local, basis.
“I really believe you do better working as one team rather than having many separate teams doing their own thing,” said Van Blarcum.
The core of the task force was built around sheriff’s office detectives and a five-member unit of the KPD which had previously worked exclusively on narcotics investigations.
Matthews’ arrest, Henry’s retirement
ButKingston’s contribution to the task force began to dwindle in January 2010 after KPD detective lieutenant and URGENT co-commander Tim Matthews was suspended amid allegations of financial misdeeds. Matthews eventually pleaded guilty to felony charges and was sentenced to a prison term for stealing more than $200,000 in police funds, including $80,000 from URGENT.) Later that year, veteranKingstonnarcotics cop and URGENT intelligence officer Bob Henry retired. Last summer, Detective Sgt. Brian Robinson was pulled from the task force to help supervise the department’s under-strength detective division. Meanwhile, starting in August 2011, the KPD’s newly created Special Investigations Unit assumed a lead role in Operation Clean Sweep, an eight-month undercover narcotics investigation that culminated in March with the arrest of over 100 alleged drug dealers and gang members, mostly in Midtown Kingston. Two KPD detectives assigned to URGENT worked on the Clean Sweep cases; when the operation wrapped up, Tinti said, he decided to formally assign them to the new unit and end the department’s commitment to the task force.
Tinti said the decision was based in part on manpower concerns. Back in 2007, when URGENT began, the department had 81 officers. Today, the roster stands at 74. The detective division, meanwhile, has dwindled from 14 officers in 2007 to 10 with at least one more expected to retire later this year. The shift also reflects Tinti’s decision to move the department towards a community policing model which emphasizes flexibility and high-visibility outreach operations. While the SIU cops continue to carry out undercover narcotics operations, the unit is also working on quality-of-life issues like prostitution and proactive efforts, including keeping tabs on parolees, chasing down fugitives and even creating a citywide map of privately owned security cameras. Tinti, who took the reins at the KPD last October, said by taking many of the city’s most troublesome gang members and drug dealers out of circulation, Clean Sweep had bought the department some breathing room and the ability to focus on community policing.
“We’re always re-evaluating what’s best for the city, what does the city need?” said Tinti. “And right now we need that visibility of having everybody out there more than the kind of narcotics work we were doing before.”
How to split the drug money
With the KPD officially out of URGENT, it will be up to the city and county attorneys to figure out an equitable division of what could be hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged drug proceeds seized by the task force. Since its inception, URGENT has relied heavily on federal seizure programs which allow police to take custody of drug dealers’ ill-gotten cash, vehicles and even real estate. Following federal court proceedings which can take months, or even years, the money is funneled back into the agency’s operating budget.
In a June 5 letter to County Attorney Bea Havranek, Kingston Corporation Counsel Andrew Zweben requested a meeting to hash out the division of assets and expenses between URGENT and the Kingston Police Department. Havranek in turn reached out to County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach to come up with an accounting to facilitate the talks. Mayor Shayne Gallo said he wants the city to receive an equitable share of any assets seized during the KPD’s tenure with URGENT.