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Alachua County Sheriff’s Office “removed” from DEA task force; Watson responds by withdrawing all deputies from joint task forces

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ASO) has been removed from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) task force, and the responsibilities and funding will be transferred to Gainesville Police Department (GPD). Since then, Sheriff Clovis Watson, Jr., has withdrawn from four other joint task forces with local and federal agencies.

The agreement for the HIDTA task force provides for funding, equipment, and the ability to seize or forfeit drugs, property, and cash. A February 1 letter from Watson to GPD Acting Chief Lonnie Scott, Sr., confirms, “As you know, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office was removed from HIDTA, the joint venture our agencies operated under for decades with our drug units.” The letter continues, “This has caused us to evaluate all combined units and make major changes in restructuring our investigations bureau.”

Gainesville Alachua County Drug Task Force

The letter to Chief Scott goes on to inform him that ASO is “recalling our deputies on loan to outside agencies effectively immediately as part of our focus on the critical need for local law enforcement and to better serve our community obligation by directing resources to local operations. This includes recalling our deputies in the Gainesville Alachua County Drug Task Force (“GACDTF”). The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the GACDTF provides the ability to end the agreement with 30 days’ notice, which began on February 1.

That MOU, between ASO, GPD, and the University of Florida Board of Trustees, provides for ASO, GPD, and the University of Florida Police Department (UPD) to form a combined narcotics and organized crime task force. Each party is responsible for its own expenses. Part of the agreement requires the Sheriff to appoint GPD and UPD personnel to the task force as deputies with “full privileges and authority to act as deputy sheriffs” within Alachua County while working on task force investigations. Forfeitures are divided between the agencies via a formula in the MOU. The MOU was just signed on December 1, 2021, by Sheriff Watson and was intended to be in effect until December 31, 2025. The MOU provides for any party to cancel its participation with 30 days’ notice.

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DEA Gainesville Resident Office Task Force

A January 31 letter from Watson to the DEA office in Gainesville serves as notification that ASO is also recalling its deputies from the Gainesville Resident Office Task Force. The agreement for that task force was most recently signed on August 5, 2021, by Watson and took effect on October 1. The agreement notes the “detrimental effect on the health and general welfare” of people in the region of trafficking in narcotics and dangerous drugs; Watson agreed to detail two experienced officers to the task force for a period of “not less than two years.” DEA agreed to assign eight Special Agents to the task force. DEA also agreed to provide necessary funds and equipment, including office space, office supplies, travel funds, funds for the purchase of evidence and information, investigative equipment, training, and other support items. DEA also agreed to pay overtime for the deputies assigned to the task force. That agreement will also terminate in 30 days, in accordance with the MOU provisions for cancellation.

FBI Jacksonville Safe Streets Gang Violent Crimes Task Force

Another January 31 letter from Watson provides notice to the FBI office in Gainesville of termination of a loaned deputy agreement between ASO and the FBI for the Jacksonville Safe Streets Gang Violent Crimes Task Force. That agreement was entered into by former Sheriff Sadie Darnell in 2018 and will terminate 30 days after the letter. The agreement paid for overtime costs, but otherwise each party is responsible for its own costs. Asset forfeitures are “equitably shared” between the participating agencies. 

FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force

A third January 31 letter from Watson provides notice to the FBI office in Gainesville of termination of a loaned deputy agreement between ASO and the FBI for the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). This agreement was also signed by former Sheriff Darnell in 2018 for an indefinite period and can be terminated with 60 days’ notice. 

The mission of the JTTF is to facilitate information sharing among members to prevent, preempt, deter, and investigate terrorist acts that affect United States interests. The FBI provides for overtime reimbursement under the MOU, along with office space, support staff, furniture, office equipment, and vehicles, when needed. Forfeited assets are distributed among the participating agencies.

“Vision for Specialized Investigative Units”

In response to our request for comment, we received a copy of a February 1 letter from Sheriff Watson to Undersheriff Joel DeCoursey, Jr., with the subject “Vision for Specialized Investigative Units.” The letter explains that Watson has suspended specialized units such as Patrol Criminal Interdiction Unit (PCIU), Countywide High Intensity Patrol (CHIP), and Youth and Community Resources Unit (YCRU) “and reorganized to maximize our effectiveness under the constraints of staffing.” He added that he was recalling deputies on loan to federal agencies based on a recent Federal Court case “which left Martin County TFO deputies personally liable in a civil suit while working for a federal agency, combined with our need for deputies in unfilled positions throughout our agency.”

This letter again confirms that ASO was “removed from HIDTA” and says those deputies will operate as an autonomous ASO unit: “This provides a tremendous opportunity for our highly-experienced team to build an unfettered unit from the ground up based on their knowledge of the newest technology and investigative techniques and our considerable resources.”

We requested comments from Sheriff Watson, GPD, North Florida HIDTA, and the DEA about the reason for removing ASO from HIDTA. Sheriff Watson provided the letter above, which does not give the reason for the removal; we spoke on the phone with North Florida HIDTA and the DEA, but neither provided any comment; GPD spokesman Graham Glover confirmed that ASO has been removed from HIDTA and that “GPD will be reconstituting a narcotics and violent crime task force in coordination with the State Attorney’s Office and other state and federal officials.”

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