Fix county drug unit

Rock Hill and York County officials ought to be able to address issues raised about the chain of command in the county's multijurisdictional drug unit without completely dismantling the unit.

The debate was sparked recently by a wide-ranging study, commissioned by the city, that examined the operation of the Rock Hill Police Department. Among the major findings in the ensuing report was a proposal to hire 21 new police officers.

But the report, compiled by consultant Carroll Buracker, also urged Rock Hill to consider running its own narcotics unit, staffed with agents who answer directly to Police Chief John Gregory. That would entail pulling some or all of the city's officers from the multijurisdictional drug unit, depleting nearly a third of the unit's manpower and curtailing its involvement in Rock Hill, the county's largest jurisdiction.

Some local defense attorneys, including public defenders, agree. They view the drug unit as a rogue operation that has too much latitude in overseeing evidence, arranging plea bargains and influencing sentences.

Critics say agents with the countywide drug unit have too much power, especially when it comes to charging suspects. They say commanders of the drug unit, not prosecutors, often make key decisions about how cases are prosecuted.

But 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett, Sheriff Bruce Bryant and other law enforcement officials sharply oppose dismantling the drug unit. They say results, including numerous drug busts and recovery of drugs, justify leaving the unit as is.

Both Brackett and Bryant plan to address the City Council about the issue in the near future. One big plus, they say, is that the unit represents a cohesive effort capable of covering the entire county.

Since 1998, the unit has made nearly 10,000 arrests, confiscated $2.4 million worth of cocaine and seized 854 guns. Agents do stakeouts and undercover drug buys, relying on high-tech equipment such as body wires, night-vision goggles and surveillance cameras made to look like shirt buttons.

The benefits of a cooperative law enforcement unit involving different jurisdictions are apparent. Agents from Rock Hill don't have to stop working a case just because they are outside the city limits. As proponents of the unit note, criminals don't observe jurisdictional boundaries.

At the same time, however, we share the concerns of defense attorneys that "the tail is wagging the dog." The drug unit needs to observe a clear line of command, and its agents should not be allowed to usurp the authority of prosecutors.

It seems possible, however, that those issues can be resolved without breaking up the unit. City and county officials should be able to find a way to rein in agents and establish a more formal command structure without sacrificing the benefits of combining the talents of different law enforcement agencies in the county.

Clearly, however, this is a debate worth having. With the level of disagreement between defense attorneys and prosecutors, the issue must be resolved.