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Crime-busting Teams Can Trip Over one Another, Report Says

Crime-fighters don't have to overlap, prosecutor says

Two federal crime-busting units planned for Central Florida could hinder efforts to stem local violence unless the incoming agents can avoid duplicating work or crossing their investigations.

A study, released earlier this month by the Department of Justice inspector general, said that federal task forces sent into eight U.S. cities often overran one another. More dangerously, these mix-ups led to agents targeting one another at least three times.

Central Florida officials were adamant Monday that similar problems would not be repeated when new ATF and FBI units are dispatched to the region in coming weeks.
" We all get along," said Orlando police Chief Mike McCoy, though he said he had received no advance word on the teams before the announcement Friday by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The aim is to combat record murder rates in Orlando and Orange County -- as well as to limit gunrunning throughout the region.

The teams join a Central Florida region already loaded with multi-agency task forces and informal groups that assist one another.

The FBI started the Safe Streets task force in Orlando earlier this year to target violent criminals. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has been working with Orlando police and Orange County Sheriff's Office agents to track illicit gun dealing and weapons used in violent crimes.

Orlando defense attorney Rick Jancha, a former federal prosecutor who worked with task forces and prosecuted their cases before retiring in January, warned that more money and agents will solve nothing without a solid plan.

"There are enough task forces in existence now that if they just focus and coordinate, then there wouldn't be any need for additional task forces," Jancha said. "The problem is that Washington's answer to a problem is to throw money at the problem."

Area members of Congress for months have lobbied federal agencies to reinforce a region that saw a record 49 murders in Orlando last year and 64 in Orange County.

McCoy said he was glad to receive the added assistance and hoped it would lead to more federal prosecutions of repeat and violent offenders.

He said he spoke Monday with Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary, and both agreed they wanted a "comprehensive meeting" with federal officials to work out details and avoid duplication or turf disputes.

Increasingly, the Department of Justice has used task forces to target violence in specific regions. Cities with multiple teams jumped from 20 in 2003 to 84 in 2005, according to the inspector general's report.

But the added federal attention brings its own hazards. On three different occasions, members of different task forces have targeted each other, the study said.

In one case, FBI agents in Atlanta pulled over a U.S. marshal because he was driving a car similar to one being used by a fugitive. No one was hurt.

Another mix-up in Chicago featured an FBI informant selling a loaded gun to an ATF undercover agent and an ATF informant. The ATF agent was arrested afterward.

An ATF supervisor in Las Vegas reported a similar incident when an undercover ATF agent sold an illegal firearm to someone claiming to be an FBI informant.

The report also noted that violent-crime teams reported the same arrest on 1,288 different occasions from 2003 to 2005.

More than half resulted from repetition that represents "significant efforts by two task forces all the way up to arrest."

To avoid problems, local law-enforcement officials said the ATF and FBI teams were cleared through the Department of Justice to avoid repetition.

Also, the task forces have different areas of focus, acting U.S. Attorney James R. Klindt said. The top prosecutor for the Middle District of Florida said ATF would target offenses in Orlando's Parramore area. FBI agents would investigate broader crimes.

Klindt also said he plans to hire two more prosecutors for his Orlando office and commit one full time to the new task-force investigations.

"There is enough violence in Orange County and the surrounding areas for two task forces to work without wasting resources or stepping on each other's toes," Klindt said.

Copyright © 2007, Orlando Sentinel
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