DA's race highlights drug task force schism

Jason Addy

Key issues in the primary race for York County district attorney are the area's prevalent opioid crisis and whether the county's drug task force is operating at full strength to address what is commonly referred to here and across the country as an epidemic.

York County District Attorney candidate Jonelle Eshbach, center, speaks during a debate with fellow Republican candidate Dave Sunday, front, while moderator and York Rotary Club Chair Mike Summers looks on during the York Rotary Club meeting at Country Club of York in Spring Garden Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

For the past four years, because of differences of opinion and personal  disagreements, detectives in the two main drug-investigation agencies in York County have not been working together.

"Think about all the families that would be saved if they worked together," said Bonnie Geisinger of Dallastown, whose daughter has struggled with opioid addiction and its effects for close to a decade.

History: Disagreements between the York City Police Department and the district attorney’s office fractured the York County Drug Task Force in 2013.

York DA candidates clash over drug task force

York City Police drug detectives parted ways with the county’s drug task force — which is overseen by the DA's office  — in January 2013 after a breakdown in the relationships between District Attorney Tom Kearney, chief deputy prosecutor Dave Sunday and York City Police Chief Wes Kahley.

Sunday is running against Jonelle Harter Eshbach to replace Kearney as district attorney in the May 16 Republican primary.

But with four weeks until the primary — which will likely determine the county's new district attorney since no Democrats are running — officials at both law-enforcement agencies seem willing to try to end the four-year schism.

Oped: City police chief: Leaders failed at 'pivotal time'

York County District Attorney candidate Dave Sunday gives his opening statement during a debate with fellow Republican candidate Jonelle Eshbach during the York Rotary Club meeting at Country Club of York in Spring Garden Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In an op-ed to The York Dispatch, Kahley wrote that he hopes to sit down with the next York County district attorney to discuss his department returning to the task force, while trying to avoid "opening old wounds."

Kahley accepted responsibility for the breakdown between his department and the district attorney's office, but he also said he thought Sunday was to blame, as well.

"The simplest answer to what occurred is that Dave Sunday and I failed as leaders during a pivotal time," Kahley wrote. "The public is not interested in petty differences between entities or personalities. The public expects and should receive the best service possible from those entrusted to serve them."

Kearney responded Wednesday with his own statement, in which he said he welcomes Kahley's offer to re-engage with the task force "for the benefit of all of York County."

In this file photo, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (right) talks in April 2017 about a heroin pipeline through York that has culminated in charges being filed against 15 people. York County District Attorney Tom Kearney (left) and senior deputy attorney general Dave Gorman (center) listen as Shapiro talks to the media.
(Liz Evans Scolforo photo)

Sunday also said he is looking forward to working with the York City Police to negotiate its return to the task force.

"We have been willing to work with the York City Police Department to bring them into the fold every day for years now, and we will continue to be," Sunday said Tuesday. "In fact, we're very heartened by the statements made by Chief Kahley."

Communication breakdown: Kahley said York City drug detectives were asked to leave the the task force four years ago after what he now calls “petty squabbles” and personality clashes between city officers and the district attorney’s office, though he declined to elaborate on the disputes.

York City police chief says county DA insulted drug cops, DA says no offense meant

Until four years ago, the county task force was a model for other drug task forces in Pennsylvania under the leadership of York City Police command staff and drug detectives, with members conducting drug investigations with full cooperation and professionalism, said Chambersburg Police Chief Ron Camacho.

In this file photo, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley comments during the mayor's news conference on the spike in violent crime in York City, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016. (John A. Pavoncello - The York Dispatch)

Camacho spent 18 years in the York City Police Department before retiring as a captain in 2013. As captain, he said, he was in charge of the city department's detectives on the task force for several years before the fracture.

Oped: Drug task force dysfunction key issue in DA race

Campaign rhetoric before the election for district attorney four years ago began to erode the relationship between the city police department and district attorney's office, he said.

According to Camacho, Kearney publicly stated he was looking for corruption within the task force, which city police command staff and drug detectives took as "a slap in the face."

The city devoted significant resources to the task force and took on much of the operational responsibilities, and city police felt disrespected by Kearney's statements, he said.

The relationship between York City Police and the district attorney's office did not recover, and several months later, the department went its own way.

Policy problem: Sunday and Kearney point to Kahley’s refusal to sign off on the task force's policy and procedures manual as the reason behind the city police department leaving.

The task force is composed of officers and detectives from police departments around the county, all of which have their own sets of rules and chains of command, Sunday said, so a policy manual was necessary to make clear the lines of authority within the task force.

The manual, which Sunday crafted with help from York County chiefs of police, also established guidelines for use of force incidents and pursuits, among other scenarios, Sunday said.

Kahley, who helped write the manual as a chief of police, said the drug task force policy manual relies heavily on those already in place at the York City Police department.

“Many of the policies in that manual were (ones) that came from the York City Police Department because only us and the state police had policies that governed dealing with informants, what to do with drug money, collection of intelligence information and those sorts of things. No other police department in the county had that at the time that the policy was created,” Kahley said.

“I helped sit there and write them on many occasions with a handful of other chiefs," he said. "I was in full agreement of abiding by all those policies.”

EDITORIAL: Power struggle over York County Drug Task Force sends wrong message

In early 2013, a memorandum of understanding, which included the new policy manual, was sent to all departments with members in the task force, but Kahley said he refused to sign the memorandum after hearing that the two Pennsylvania State Police troopers assigned to the task force did not sign it.

“My thing was, ‘When everybody signs it, we’ll be happy to sign it,'” Kahley said. “You can’t operate a team where half the team does one thing and half the team does the other thing. It just doesn’t work out. All that does is increase the petty squabbles.”

Kyle King, spokesman for the district attorney's office, confirmed Wednesday that troopers from Troop H of the Pennsylvania State Police have not signed the memorandum.

The memorandum is meant to serve as an agreement for York County to reimburse municipalities for the salaries, benefits and other items paid to officers for their work on the task force.

"We do not pay for troopers' salaries, which are assigned to the (drug task force) by the Pennsylvania State Police, Troop H, therefore a (memorandum of understanding) is not necessary," King wrote in an email. "However, the Pennsylvania State Police do operate under the guidelines as set forth by the Chiefs of Police and this office."

Fiscal issue: Eshbach, Sunday's opponent in the race for district attorney, spent a dozen years in the York County District Attorney's Office under former DA Stan Rebert. In her time in the office, Eshbach said, the York County Drug Task Force was "highly regarded" throughout the county, with county and city drug detectives working well with state police troopers.

If elected, Eshbach said she would hold "diplomatic discussions" with Kahley about the city police department rejoining the task force but warned she also expects all members of the task force to agree to the policy and procedures manual.

As someone who was not involved in the initial split between York City Police and the task force, Eshbach feels she is in a better position than Sunday to bring all stakeholders in the task force to the negotiating table.

York County District Attorney candidate Jonelle Eshbach gives her opening statement during a debate with fellow Republican candidate Dave Sunday during the York Rotary Club meeting at Country Club of York in Spring Garden Township, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo

She said she is somewhat surprised the disagreements have not been resolved over the past four years, as it is "fiscally imprudent and inefficient" for the two agencies to work separately.

Without one central unit providing oversight, the agencies could be wasting time and resources conducting the same investigations or unwittingly ruining each other's investigations, Eshbach said, while operational costs could be cut by combining the task force and city police department.

"It is wasteful not to be using that money to its fullest effect. When the task force breaks into two and both (agencies) have to reestablish themselves, that's doubly bad," she said. "It's not only a waste of money but a drop down in the level of the fight that we're putting up against drug dealers."

Separate, yet effective: The separation left the York City Police with funding issues and the York County Drug Task Force short-staffed for a time, but by most accounts, both agencies have rebounded to a point where they can conduct effective drug investigations.

The York City Police Department lost nearly $250,000 in revenue after its split with the task force, as well as overtime pay for its officers and vital equipment for drug investigations. The department does still receive a monthly stipend of "buy money" for undercover work, Kahley said.

After losing equipment and overtime pay for its officers, the York City Police Department created a vice and narcotics unit to continue investigating drug dealers and users in the city.

Meanwhile, the district attorney's office worked to put that funding and equipment back in use as quickly as possible by expanding task force membership to other municipalities in the county, Sunday said.

Sunday said the task force needs to be conducting drug investigations throughout the county to combat the opioid epidemic, with major interstates connecting York to areas such as Baltimore, "the heroin capital of the U.S." and New York City.

"Everyone is working in different ways to fight this epidemic on all fronts. York County has many, many front in this battle," Sunday said, citing the need to stop the flow of drugs before they get to York City.

Eshbach, however, said the majority of drugs are moved to York City  before being distributed throughout the county, so it is vital to have York City Police involved in county drug investigations at all steps.

After decades working on and off with the county task force as an unfunded member, the Northern York County Regional Police Department joined the task force as a fully funded member in 2013, said Northern Regional Chief Mark Bentzel.

In those four years, the drug task force has operated effectively, and the city's separation did not have a detrimental effect on the task force's investigations.

Though Bentzel would be unwilling to go back to the old setup where his department had no funding from the task force, he said it "would make sense for the city police department to be participating in the drug task force."

"Certainly, everyone working together could make a good situation even better," he said.

York Area Regional Police Chief Tim Damon credited drug task force detectives for effectively seizing drugs, weapons and cash over the past four years, stating that his department's officer in the task force makes 50 to 60 arrests each year for drug violations.

But, like several other county police chiefs, Damon said the task force can be more efficient with full cooperation from York City Police.

"If you can get both communication and cooperation, and you can get all the players to coordinate, then I think you can have a very successful operation," Damon said. "You can make law enforcement very efficient in that way."