Mike Powell, a 35-year veteran of law enforcement, has been keeping busy as commander of the Kansas Combined Anti-Drug Task Force based in Parsons.
The task force, which combines resources from the Parsons Police Department, the Labette County Sheriff’s Department and the Labette County Attorney’s Office, has already executed search warrants and made arrests from tips. He’s also been involved in investigating two recent shootings.
Powell was born and raised near Puyallup, Washington. He’s worked in the same county as Parsons Police Chief Robert Spinks, who was in Sequim, Washington, when Powell worked in Forks, Washington. Powell also worked with Spinks at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Spinks told Powell about the job in Parsons and Powell applied. Spinks wasn’t involved in the interview or selection process, however. There were three candidates for the position.
Powell has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice administration and master’s degrees in criminal justice and public administration. He’s served as a patrolman, detective, chief, regional trainer, consultant and adjunct faculty member over the years. He’s been a sniper on a SWAT team and worked on a regional crime task force that targeted gangs. He’s also served as a drug task force commander in Grant County, Washington.
He retired from law enforcement in Washington before taking the Louisiana job. He most recently was an investigator for Louisiana’s child protective services before applying for the job in Parsons.
Powell started work in Parsons in mid-July and considered it a good opportunity to get back into law enforcement in a job that he’d done before.
“I thought I could be a positive influence for the city and for this new task force,” Powell said.
He knows that drugs in a community lead to thefts, burglaries, violent crime and robberies. The overall crime rate is down in Parsons but the violent crime rate is not. While he has no illusions that the task force can eradicate drugs in the community, the force will “try to get to the point that it’s not quite the epidemic that it is now.”
“If we start making a dent in that, we’re going to start making the county safer overall with less violent crime. That’s the goal,” Powell said.
The task force can operate countywide because of a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff’s department, which is a countywide law enforcement agency.
Powell said citizens will be key to the task force’s success. Tips from the public have already helped move task force investigations, with some of them leading to search warrants.
“That’s just in Parsons. We’re not even outside into the rest of the county yet,” Powell said.
The task force will focus on drug investigations and hopes citizens will call the tip line (421-7057) or email tips to email@example.com. This information will be investigated, though that process sometimes takes time, Powell said. Investigations could take weeks or months, depending on circumstances.
Reports of drug use will be followed up by patrol officers and the task force will work on drug distribution and manufacture.
Powell said if a citizen calls in a tip and doesn’t see anything happening, he welcomes them to send the tip in again.
“We’re going to get it and we’re going to work on it. We’re not just going to blow it off. Because our focus is on drugs,” Powell said.
“We’re (the task force) more interested in who’s bringing it into our county than the people who are using it for personal use,” Powell said, though he acknowledged that drug users can help move investigations forward as well.
The task force has Parsons Detective Sgt. Kyle Wiford and sheriff’s Detective Shannon Vail assigned to it. Powell said patrol officers play an important role in the task force’s success because a lot of the information used by the task force is advanced from patrol officers.
“My philosophy is that we’re literally a team,” Powell said of working with patrol officers.
He wants officers who pass along those tips to be involved in the search warrants when the investigation reaches that stage. Some departments have a disconnect between patrol and investigations or task forces and Powell doesn’t want that in Parsons.
The task force
Police Chief Robert Spinks started work on the task force after he came to Parsons in October 2018.
Spinks hopes that eventually other police departments in the county can provide resources for the task force.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation ran a task force in Southeast Kansas until about three years ago. Spinks hopes the KBI can provide resources to KCAT and he’s seeking funding from other sources as well, from grants and from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program run by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Labette, Cherokee and Crawford counties are still considered HIDTA counties in Kansas and the DEA is to work with state and local law enforcement to guide resources and intelligence to combat drug trafficking in these areas.
KCAT’s executive board consists of Spinks, Sheriff Darren Eichinger and County Attorney Stephen Jones. Powell reports to the executive board. Deputy Police Chief Dennis Dodd serves on the advisory board.
The board meets at least monthly.
The task force will have a website through which the public can provide tips in addition to the phone numbers and email already available.
Spinks said he wants the public to know there is a planning and training process for KCAT and there is accountability.
The task force is funded by the individual agencies, but the sheriff and police have agreed to keep forfeiture money into a budget line item controlled by the KCAT executive board. In the past, drug forfeitures returned to the agency that made the arrest.
The overarching goal of KCAT is to target drug distribution, manufacture, sales and transportation, Spinks said.
“But our focus is folks who are moving quantities in and out and through our cities and county,” he said.
In the wake of recent shootings in Parsons, many of them gunfire between vehicles, the need for such a task force is clear.
“Much of the violent crime is caused by the drug trade. Much of the property crimes are caused by the drug trade,” Jones said.
Having a countywide focus on the problem will help because agencies in Altamont, Oswego and Chetopa may not know what’s going on in Parsons and Parsons may not know what’s going on in the other communities.
“And I think this task force is a great opportunity to combine all of that so they know what’s going on in Labette County,” Jones said.
Asked why meth-making arrests have slowed, Eichinger said prices have dropped for methamphetamine as Mexican drug cartels continue to move their product into the United States. This and other factors — restricting purchases of pseudoephedrine and having retailers monitor the purchase of other meth-making ingredients — have slowed local meth makers. Eichinger said the price has dropped from about $300 for an “8-ball” — or about 3.5 grams of meth — to $100 to $150.
He said the risk is much less for drug dealers to sell meth rather than manufacture it. If convicted of meth-making, a defendant could get a minimum of 13 years in prison, though pleas generally offer seven years to first-time offenders.
A second conviction for meth-making doubles the sentence, Jones said.
“If you’re just distributing it, that penalty doesn’t come with it,” Jones said.
Drug distribution charges are tied to quantities and could range from just over a year to about 11 years minimum.
Jones said for the task force to be successful in fighting the drug problem, its agents must follow up.
“If the community believes that if they turn in a tip it’s going to be followed up and something’s going to be done, they are going to do that. If they feel like they turn in a tip and nothing gets done, nobody’s going to care. If the police don’t care, then they don’t care. And I think that is by far the most important thing that we can do is follow up and show the community that this is not just employment opportunity for Mike. We’re here to really get to the bottom of the drug trade and to really catch these guys,” Jones said.
Police are exploring options for keeping in contact with the community.
Besides releases to the media, police are looking at nextdoor.com, an online neighborhood application that allows community members to share information with each other and law enforcement about neighborhood happenings. This could serve as a neighborhood watch program to a degree.
Spinks said nextdoor.com allows police to send out notifications in a structured and professional manner, but allows neighbors to talk to police, too.
“That increases, hopefully, the level of communication … in the neighborhoods,” he said.
So far, police have provided updates on a recent shooting, information on bus safety and shared facts from recent crime data.
Spinks recently shared on the application how the public can share information with police through nextdoor.com and provided a link to a tutorial on doing that.
“As always, we cannot view any content that you do not choose to directly forward to Parsons Police Department. We cannot see the posts and replies that are made in your neighborhood,” Spinks wrote in his post.
Recently, Spinks said he wants Labette County to form a Crime Stoppers chapter as well.
Crime Stoppers is based on the principle that someone other than the criminal has information that can solve a crime and it was created to combat the three major problems faced by law enforcement in generating that information: Fear of reprisal, apathy and reluctance to get involved.