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Countywide drug unit to be formed

The Pinellas County Commission is expected next week to give Sheriff Everett Rice an additional $1.7-million for the creation of a countywide narcotics unit. The money would pay for 25 more deputies, increasing the number of narcotics detectives to 67. These detectives would form the core of a narcotics bureau that eventually would include officers from local, state and federal agencies.

County Commissioner Charles Rainey, who has spearheaded the effort to establish such a unit, announced the task force Tuesday at a news conference that doubled as a commission work session.

At its meeting next week, the commission will consider adding $1.7-million to the sheriff's budget for hiring the extra deputies, equipping them and setting up a bureau. If the narcotics bureau is approved, the money would come from the county's contingency fund.

"We want drug dealers and even drug users to know we're not just standing around," Rice said. "We don't intend to displace local efforts. This unit will concentrate more on the (narcotics) supply side."

Officials from U.S. Customs, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement noted during the news conference that Pinellas is a haven for drug smuggling because of its miles of coastline. Agreeing that a united effort by law enforcement agencies would pool investigative talent, they pledged full cooperation.

"The FBI is dedicated to this effort," said Allen H. McCreight, FBI special agent-in-charge. "We will be present for the long haul, and we are fully committed to its success."

Local participation in the narcotics bureau is uncertain. There has been no firm commitment from municipal police departments, which would pay for their own officers, Rice said.

Any police officers assigned to the unit would be deputized and would have jurisdiction in all areas of Pinellas. The unit's operation would be coordinated by the Sheriff's Department.

In the past, similar task forces have caused turf wars between the Sheriff's Department and municipalities. But the sheriff insisted that would not occur with the narcotics bureau.

About 90 law enforcement officers would be in the bureau. If the commission approves the unit, it could be operating by June.

"This has been a dream of mine for quite some time," said James T. Russell, Pinellas-Pasco state attorney. "We're going to have a lot more cases (to prosecute) .

.

. but that's the name of the game."

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