It is the biggest cause for contention in law enforcement on the North Coast.

Why isn't the municipal police force of Clatsop County's largest city represented on the Clatsop County Narcotics Task Force?

Sheriff Tom Bergin - who used to lead the task force - wonders why Astoria Police Department isn't on board.

The city's absence from the task force has been a sore point for Bergin, who in the past has criticized APD's move, pointing out that Astoria has the most drug activity in the county. He's continued to ask city officials to revisit the issue.

"I would love to have Astoria on board," he said. "It's a team effort, and that means having Astoria on board."

Astoria Police Chief Rob Deu Pree has an explanation. Having two officers on duty at all times is a top priority for Deu Pree. And so far, he hasn't found a way to do that and still assign an officer to the task Ffrce, which is now down to just two members, one from the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office and one from the Seaside Police Department.

One reason is Deu Pree's budget. With only 16 officers he doesn't have the manpower to free up an officer for the task force without spending money for overtime.

But the main reason goes deeper. Deu Pree doesn't think the task force is the best way to deal with the county's drug problems.

"There seems to be a feeling that if Astoria assigns someone to the task force, all the drug problems will go away," Deu Pree said. "If someone could tell me that drug problems would go away or be substantially minimized, I think I and all the other chiefs would look into it. But we have not seen it happen and there is absolutely no evidence that it would."

Task force leaders say a total of 44 charges involving meth possession or dealing were filed as a result of task force investigations in 2004-05. The statistics don't count the actual number of people charged.

Overall arrest numbers were lower last year, because for most of that period the narcotics team itself was down to only two members, task force leader Sgt. Bob Hahn said. In prior years when the team had four people, it handled as many as 100 cases a year.

Recently the sheriff's office added a third member to the task force, a detective who until recently was working drug cases in Portland as part of a statewide anti-narcotics campaign. In January the Oregon State Police are set to return to the team as well.

Raw numbers can be misleading, Hahn said, if they don't distinguish between drugs found by officers in the course of a traffic stop, versus the complex investigations undertaken by the task force aimed at catching multiple drug peddlers. "It's apples and oranges," he said.

The task force recently arrested several people in Seaside on meth possession and delivery charges. The arrests stemmed from an investigation that piggy-backed onto another probe and lasted four months total, Hahn said.

"Patrol officers normally do not have the time to follow and investigate a case," he said. "They don't have the time to do surveillance, to see where the drugs are coming from."

Establishing probable cause, the threshold of evidence necessary to obtain search warrants and make arrests, usually requires lengthy background work, including arranged drug buys between police informants and the targets of the investigation, Hahn said. Catching dealers often requires making at least two drug purchases from the person - "if they sell dope just once, they can make an argument for entrapment," he said.

The task force goes after the middlemen, or "mules," who buy meth, pinch a bit for their own use and sell the rest to local users. Through them the team can get to the dealers who sell to the mules, Hahn said.

An ounce of meth can cost a dealer $800 to $1,000, but divided up and sold as individual one-eighth-ounce portions known as "eight-balls," that same ounce can bring in close to $3,000, making the trade highly lucrative.

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