WILKES-BARRE — Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis has assumed control of the Luzerne County Drug Task Force from the state Office of Attorney General, following a nearly two-year push to acquire the task force in a move she says will bolster efforts to battle the drug war locally.
Salavantis first sought to take the reigns of the task force in mid-2014, but the transfer was repeatedly held up and drug investigations were scaled back as her office attempted to complete the process. Despite a mild dispute over who was to blame for the holdup, the transfer was made official Aug. 9, Salavantis said.
The drug task force is a coalition of law enforcement agencies throughout the county that collaborate on narcotics-related investigations. Officials say that the task force is necessary to backstop the many municipalities that can’t afford the luxury of a dedicated narcotics detective.
Control of the task force will now be locally held, allowing a full share of the cash and assets seized in civil forfeitures to be put back into jurisdictions within the county, as opposed to being split 50-50 with the state Office of Attorney General.
Salavantis this week said her office will also receive quarterly funding that will go “directly into the hands of officers who do drug work on the streets.” She said she could not disclose the amount, but said it will be regulated for use in drug-related investigations only and audited by the OAG to ensure it is only being used for those cases.
The funding, which Salavantis expects to receive in the coming days, will also go toward the salary of a yet-to-be-appointed coordinator who will oversee the task force, she said.
“We are putting out applications for the position and will be hiring best person for job,” she said.
James Noone, a Luzerne County detective, will run the task force until the position is filled.
With the transfer, Luzerne County becomes the state’s 46th county to have its task force controlled by its district attorney, according to figures provided Tuesday by the OAG.
Word of the transfer came as the OAG and many of its top officials were mired in perhaps their most turbulent span in recent memory.
Salavantis said Acting Attorney General Bruce L. Castor Jr. notified her the transfer was official on the same day opening arguments were heard in the perjury trial of his then-boss, former Attorney General Kathleen Kane.
A Montgomery County jury found the 50-year-old Scranton native guilty of two counts of perjury and seven misdemeanor counts of abusing the powers of her office less than a week later.
Castor took control of the office following Kane’s resignation Aug. 17, but is expected to be replaced after Gov. Tom Wolf nominated former Allegheny County deputy prosecutor Bruce Beemer for the job.
The timing of the notice was surprising, but was welcomed considering the amount of time it took to happen, Salavantis said.
“Chiefs and law enforcement officials are excited because we have been in such a limbo for the past two years trying to take (the drug task force) over,” she said. “Not much has been done in that time, and everyone is excited to get back into it.”
The second-term district attorney downplayed whether police might struggle with the sudden change.
“I think everybody is excited,” Salavantis said. “Yes, people hesitate. People don’t like change. But this is a good change and is long overdue, and will benefit us in the long run.”
Salavantis said she’ll work closely with neighboring counties who have had control of their task force for “years on end.”
A pair of local police chiefs lauded the handoff.
Acting Hazleton Police Chief Jerry Speziale, who was “ecstatic” when he received word of the transfer, said the handoff is a “monumental change” that strengthens an already dynamic relationship between local law enforcement and the county district attorney’s office.
Instead of having to seek the OAG’s approval to cross another county’s borders during a drug investigation, police can now reach out to local officials with whom “cohesive relationships” have already been forged, Speziale said.
“At this point it’s a phone call, it’s a text,” Speziale said. “It’s just so much easier for us.”
He added: “Drug dealers have no jurisdictional borders. We do. This unstraps those borders and makes it easier for us to travel where we need to go.”
Hanover Township Police Chief Albert Walker said he welcomes the proposed additional resources, assets he says help bolster the battle against drug dealers.
“When there’s more tools available to fight the war on drugs, it gives us the ability to do that even more vigorously,” Walker said. “With more manpower, more equipment or specialized equipment, the increased financial resources are going to help us do to a better job.”
Walker said he didn’t have all the details on the structure of the county-run task force, but believed the “appropriate processes” will be established so that it mirrors the state-led unit.
“I’m led to believe that a lot of the (OAG’s) systems are going to be replicated,” he said. “It’s not gong to be completely new process. A lot of the things in place (before the transfer) will be similar.”
“I don’t see us losing any capabilities,” he added.
Salavantis said the county will continue to work closely with the OAG as needed.
“They’re still there as another agency that will assist us at any time,” she said.
Jeffrey A. Johnson, OAG spokesman, said the officer’s investigators “have strong working relationships throughout the commonwealth with other law enforcement agencies, including those in Luzerne County.”
“It is vitally important for us to continue maintaining those relationships moving forward, especially when drug investigations are involved,” Johnson said in an email.
Salavantis said she hopes to establish zones within the county that will be overseen by regional coordinators.
“We’re looking at different ways to better assist with the drug war,” she said.