Council's exit from DEA task force sparks controversy

The Common Council’s decision Tuesday to withdraw a city detective from a federally-led drug investigation task force garnered extensive, negative social media attention as of Thursday.

More than 5,000 Facebook users viewed an article on The Cortland Voice’s page as of Thursday afternoon and more than 50 individuals left shocked and angry comments. Many readers questioned why the Council voted down the resolution to continue a partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration that focused on large-scale drug dealers in Syracuse that supply smaller cities with illicit substances, including addicts in Cortland. Commenters noted Chief F. Michael Catalano’s expert opinion the partnership was effective and pointed to the 70 percent reduction in methamphetamine production in the city since the task force’s 2017 investigation that led to eight Cortland County arrests on federal charges. 

The resolution failed in a 5-1 vote Tuesday, with Second Ward Alderwoman Kathryn J. Silliman casting the lone “aye” ballot. Aldermen Gary L. Thomas (Third Ward) and Carlos Ferrer (Sixth Ward) were absent.

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Alderman Bill Carpenter (Fifth Ward) said the general consensus of the Council was of concern the detective’s involvement would hinder city investigations and that it preferred officers to participate in the Cortland County Drug Task Force.

Having an officer work with federal agents in Syracuse would increase the workload on city detectives, said Carpenter, a retired Cortland police detective. The DEA should hire more agents rather than try to partner with city detectives, he said.

Detective Lt. Michael Strangeway disagreed Thursday with that assessment, noting the city’s detectives do not share caseloads. The city’s drug detective is the only one that regularly works on drug cases, whether those cases are investigations with the DEA in Syracuse or in the city, he said. The detective can also stay in the city and work on local cases at the department’s discretion if the other detectives need assistance, Catalano told the Council on Tuesday.

Fourth Ward Alderman John Bennett said in a separate phone interview Thursday the vote was a “tough call.”

Having a detective work in Syracuse with the DEA costs the city police too much manpower, Bennett said.

“(It’s) excellent work and does help stop the drug flow into the city,” he said. “But there are other concerns.”

One is that the city officer could get hurt while on a case in Syracuse which could be a financial liability to Cortland, Bennett said. “Our taxpayers pay that,” he said.

“That’s a risk we take with every officer, every day,” Catalano told Bennett at the Tuesday night Common Council meeting. Catalano added officers could be hurt while working with the Cortland County Drug Task Force outside of the city.

Both Catalano and Strangeway noted the detective work in Syracuse is done mostly within a secure office.

Listening to wiretaps comprises the majority of the work when investigating the large drug distributors, Strangeway said. A specialized, federal SWAT team makes the actual arrests and serves warrants in the DEA cases, he added. In local cases, city officers bear the greater danger and burden of conducting “boots on the ground” investigations, Strangeway explained.

There are other financial concerns regarding the federal partnership, Bennett said in the Thursday afternoon interview. What the city is reimbursed by the DEA does not cover the entire cost of having the detective working out of the city, including the wear and tear on the officer’s police vehicle, he said.

That assessment is not accurate, according to the City Police Department. The department receives a percentage of all drug money seized during investigations conducted by the DEA task force, Strangeway said at the meeting. Strangeway said Thursday the payouts exceed the amount of money the department lays out by thousands of dollars.

Since January 2018, the department has received $50,000 in forfeiture money, Strangeway said Thursday. The city was expecting to receive an additional $10,500, but may not now that the department has withdrawn from the partnership, he said.

All city police vehicles receive regular maintenance whether they drive to Syracuse or not, Catalano said in a phone interview Thursday. At Tuesday’s Council meeting, he noted the DEA provides the detective with a gas card to cover the cost of fuel and that the highway driving is likely easier on the vehicle than typical city patrols. The DEA also reimburses the department for any overtime costs that can be tied to large drug investigations, Catalano told the Council.

Previously seized drug money has already been used to purchase equipment for city police officers that otherwise would have had to come from city funds, Catalano told the Council.

The Councilmembers are entitled to their opinions, Catalano said Thursday, adding he thinks he knows more about how to properly run a police department.

“That’s what I’m entrusted to do,” he said. “If I thought this would jeopardize what we’re doing in Cortland, I would never do it.”

Some city residents echoed Catalano’s sentiments on Facebook.

“So Common Council knows law enforcement more than our police??” wrote Patti Riotto of Ward Seven. “Outrageous.”

Faye Ferguson, who also listed her hometown as Cortland, agreed. “Jumping over dollars to pick up dimes again,” Ferguson wrote. “When will these ‘legislators’ learn to listen to the folks that know something about the subject? Sad for Cortland.”

 If the city is a more secure financial position in the future, perhaps it could rejoin the task force, Bennett said Thursday. “Financially, going into 2020 is a very, very tough year,” he said. 

The City Council is facing the possibility of an 8 percent property tax hike to balance the upcoming budget.

It is unlikely the Council would reconsider and re-vote on the DEA resolution, although it is possible, Bennett said. “Currently, I don’t foresee that happening,” he said.

Bennett reiterated Thursday the vote was a difficult decision.

“It’s a tough call,” he said. “There’s no winners and there’s really no losers.”

Alderpersons Kat McCarthy, Kathryn J. Silliman, Thomas J. Michales and Troy Beckwith, as well as Mayor Brian Tobin, could not be reached for comment by press time.