The Warren County Sheriff's Office will withdraw from the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force on Feb. 1.

The decision was made after Warren County Sheriff Mark Butler said he discussed it internally with his members, noting that it wasn’t an easy decision to make.

“Nothing groundbreaking. The task force has been around and doing things the same way for a long time,” Butler said. “We just felt that it was in our best interest right now to circle our wagons and focus everything on our county to remove the drugs from the streets.”

While saying he thinks the task force is good, sometimes, resources can get pulled out of the county for other efforts involving the task force and that may not be the best for Warren County, Butler said.

“Warren County pays my guys' salaries 100%, and my girls, and they should get 100% of their day-to-day operations,” Butler added.

The task force was formed in 1986 and includes members from sheriff's offices in Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah, and Warren counties as well as the Front Royal, Strasburg, Winchester, and Luray police departments and the state police.

It works by having each agency contribute a certain number of officers to work drug and gang-related instances, and those officers are sworn-in with state police authority to work across any jurisdiction.

State police coordinate and manage the operations, which includes meeting regularly to share manpower and investigative technologies, and connections to resources from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“We will not comment on the decision of any agency's decision to join, remain, or terminate a membership,” Joshua Price, state police supervisory agent and task force coordinator, stated in an email. “Obviously, the state police wishes to further the efforts to reduce drug trafficking and the injuries and/or deaths surrounding drug usage. Task forces have (been) shown to be (an) effective tool in accomplishing this mission.

“However, we respect the decision by any agency to not participate as they must be able to adapt their agency's activities in the manner they feel most effective and suitable to their unique situations to also accomplish this goal.”

Agency heads from the Front Royal, Strasburg and Luray police departments, and the Clarke and Page Sheriff’s Offices had no negative things to say about the task force while respecting the decision of Butler to do what he considers best for his department and constituents.

“The loss of those agents will certainly impact how we manage some of our personnel,” Front Royal Police Chief Khale Magalis stated by email. “That said, one of the fantastic benefits of participating with the task force is that we have that partnership with the remaining jurisdictions in the task force...I have always been a proponent of the task force concept and the organization has been very successful for more than three decades in the Shenandoah Valley.”

Intel gained through the task force can lead to the arrest of 10- to 12-member criminal organizations, Strasburg Police Chief Wayne Sager said during a phone interview. He was a member of the task force for five years when Strasburg joined in 2008. Drug arrests can lead to a decrease in property and other crimes that are usually a means for drug addicts to get money for their habit, he added. The work of the task force has also led to treatment for individuals, Sager said.

The task force also lessens conflict by having officers be aware of operations in other jurisdictions, Sager said. Butler said losing the regular communication of the task force won’t inhibit efforts to decrease conflicts, and communication between agencies will still exist. If rejoining the task force ends up being beneficial, Butler said, his Sheriff’s Office will consider it.

For all of 2020, the task force recorded 255 opiate overdoses, with 53 deaths and 202 injuries, according to a year-end report.

In 2019, there were 27 deaths and 142 injuries, in 2018 22 deaths and 151 injuries, in 2017 40 deaths and 190 injuries, in 2016 28 deaths and 126 injuries and in 2015 30 deaths and 55 injuries recorded by the task force.

In 2016 and 2017, the team of Warren County and Front Royal officers had the most cases initiated by a task force team and had the second highest overall number of cases in recent years. 

Butler said from 2019 to 2020 there’s been a near 100% increase in arrests, and overdoses have dropped a “considerable amount,” while being unable to immediately provide specific numbers as they are still being finalized.

“The task force will still function and staff a team in Front Royal and Warren County,” Price said, while adding the county will maintain it’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area designation by the Office of National Drug Policy. Frederick county is also designated as a HIDTA. The designations were applied for by the task force on behalf of the counties.

The task force receives $157,500 a year from the Baltimore/Washington HIDTA, Price said. Federal funding provided by HIDTA goes toward technology and training, and allowed the task force to hire and employ a Special Assistant United States Attorney to assist with task force investigations.

Butler said he will still be working with the surrounding HIDTA.

Butler also said there were no specific issues within his department that needed addressing and the decision to leave the task force was not made for budgetary concerns. According to Price, in 2020, each of the 10 participating agencies contributed just under $11,000 for task force expenses, and generally each participating agency receives back through asset forfeiture what they contribute throughout the year. Last year, the task force seized approximately $145,000.

Contact Charles Paullin at cpaullin@nvdaily.com