Ten years after it was formed, York County's multi-jurisdictional drug unit has landed at the center of a debate with major implications for local law enforcement.
Rock Hill could soon consider pulling some or all of its officers from the squad, a move that would take away nearly a third of the unit's manpower and curtail its involvement in the county's biggest jurisdiction.
Solicitor Kevin Brackett and others in law enforcement sharply oppose the idea, arguing the unit has produced big-time results in catching criminals and getting drugs off the streets.
Meanwhile, defense lawyers hope the debate finally brings some scrutiny to what they view as a rogue operation that wields too much influence over evidence, plea bargains and sentencing.
"I think it's as bad now as it ever was," said chief deputy public defender B.J. Barrowclough. "There's all kinds of dangers in having the police assume these prosecutorial functions."
Report shines light on issue
The issue burst into the spotlight last week in a wide-ranging report, commissioned by the city, that explores ways to improve Rock Hill's law enforcement structure.
Consultant Carroll Buracker urged Rock Hill to consider running its own narcotics unit, staffed with agents who answer directly to Police Chief John Gregory.
The suggestion drew praise from lawyers who have argued for years that the county squad operates without clear lines of authority.
"They have way too much power," said attorney Jim Morton, who regularly represents clients in drug cases. "Prosecutors (are supposed to) look at a case, use their discretion and decide what they think the appropriate charge is. A lot of times, those decisions are being left to the commander of the drug unit. It's an inherent conflict."
Cities and towns across York County provide officers to the drug unit, which carries 25 agents when fully staffed. Rock Hill pays $384,000 for seven officers and one lieutenant, making it the largest contributor.
Brackett: Unit allows for cohesive approach
Solicitor Brackett and Sheriff Bruce Bryant are gearing up to speak against the potential chan-ges. Both plan to address the City Council in coming weeks.
Brackett offered a preview of the defense, though he didn't want to comment on the report itself because he hasn't read through it.
"We are in the best shape we have ever been as far as fighting narcotics," he said last week. "Drug dealers don't know boundaries. When you have five different groups working on the issue, I've seen that. And it doesn't function as well as having one cohesive countywide effort."
Brackett said the lines of authority are clear. Unit commander Marvin Brown answers to the solicitor, Bryant and each police chief who provides officers to the squad.
Big results, too much power?
Over the years, the squad has made some high-profile arrests, from former Coroner Doug McKown on drug charges, to employees at a pair of Fort Mill massage parlors where sex acts were found to be taking place.
Drugs are the top focus, but the unit also investigates prostitution, gambling and alcohol violations.
Since 1998, the unit has made 9,827 arrests, confiscated $2.4 million worth of cocaine and seized 854 guns. Agents do stakeouts and undercover drug buys, relying on high-tech gizmos such as body wires, night-vision goggles and surveillance cameras made to look like shirt buttons.
"They have been very successful," said Rock Hill City Councilman Kevin Sutton. "You have an outsider coming in, and you have members of council who weren't here when it was being set up."
The problem with the current system, critics say, is that it gives police too much leeway on decisions best left up to trained attorneys, whether on evidence introduced at trial or how long offenders should serve in jail.
"If it's the police dictating plea offers or what evidence gets turned over, then you have the chain of command turned upside down," said Barrowclough, the public defender.
"That's what I call the tail wagging the dog."
Brown, the drug unit's commander, declined to comment, saying he would prefer to leave the discussion up to elected officials.
Even if the consultant's ideas come to fruition, there's no guarantee that things would get better, Barrowclough said. But, he added, "I think it's a great opportunity to have the debate."