The Libertarian Party of Mississippi sent out a press release in October calling on the University of Mississippi, City of Oxford and Lafayette County to cease all funding of the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit.
The Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit has been controversial since numerous articles by Buzzfeed this year highlighted the unit’s usage of confidential informants. Many of the confidential informants were students at the University, according to Buzzfeed. The Libertarian Party of Mississippi is joining the Lafayette County Libertarian Party in calling for disbandment, which called for disbandment of the unit in April.
“We decided it was something that needed to be exposed to the public. Just like any other public policy, the public needed to be aware (of the units practices),” said Vance Justin, secretary of the Lafayette County Libertarian Party.
The Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit is currently funded jointly by three organizations: the University of Mississippi, City of Oxford through the Oxford Police Department and Lafayette County through the Lafayette County Sheriffs. Every year each organization provides funding of $100,000 to the unit, bringing the total yearly funding to $300,000.
However, the unit also gains money through federal grants and seizures, such as vehicle forfeitures, according to University Police Chief Tim Potts. The unit doesn’t receive funding on a typical calendar year, and the unit just received more funding in September for the following year, according to Potts. The Metro Narcotics Unit only consists of about four or five officers, and is under the supervision of a control board.
The control board consists of Potts, who became a part of the control board in June when he took his job with the University Police Department, Oxford Police Chief Joey East and Chief Deputy Scott Mills of the Lafayette County Sheriffs Office.
The unit is currently without a chief. Former Metro Narcotics Chief Keith Davis resigned on September 30. Potts said the unit has an interim leader at the time and is currently undergoing the process of selecting a new chief. Davis did not respond to interview requests, and Potts did not want to discuss the interim leader due to the ongoing search for a new chief.
The Libertarian Party of Mississippi has called for the cessation of funding to the unit for three reasons given in the press release. The reasons listed are “confidential informant programs unduly endanger the safety of the informants. The practice of having confidential informants to entice or pressure other persons into committing drug offenses, at the behest of police, is a form of entrapment,” and “targeting low-level drug offenders is a poor use of scarce law enforcement resources.”
The Libertarian Party doesn’t believe that drug prohibition works in America, according to Justice. Potts feels that the Metro Narcotics Unit is necessary to continue fighting the war on drugs in and around Oxford.
“We have to continue fighting the drug fight,” Potts said. “If we lose the metro team, are we prepared to fight that drug war on our own? I don’t know if each individual agency could say yes on that right now.”
The funding of the unit through the University is controversial to one individual who had a run-in with the unit when he was a 17-year-old high school student in Oxford 10 years ago. The source asked to remain unnamed.
“In high-school, I used to smoke a lot of weed,” the source said.
The source was approached by an officer in the Metro Narcotics Unit. The source said he watched as his car was “torn apart” searching for drugs.
“I didn’t have any drugs,” the source said, “but they found a pack of rolling papers. I had tobacco in the car, loose tobacco, which is what those papers could have easily been for, but they said I had drug paraphernalia.”
The officer spoke with the teen’s parents over the phone, saying that he was going to be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia.
“To get out of it he wanted me, a 17-year-old, mind you, to become a confidential informant,” the source said. “My parents were very much against it, they said I wasn’t going to do anything for them, and if the charges hold we would sue. The charges wound up being dropped, he just wanted another confidential informant.”
UM Public Relations Director Danny Blanton directed questions on the matter to Potts.
In the time since the controversial informant program was brought to light by Buzzfeed, Potts said the unit has been reshaping the way they do things, and the unit has even brought in its own outside investigation unit to take a look at how the unit operates.
Potts said officers on the unit will now be evaluated after each year on the job in order to ensure that they are still capable of carrying out their duties. The unit will also seek to become accredited as a drug task force, which if successful will be the first of its kind in Mississippi. Potts also expects the change in leadership to bring fresh perspective to the unit.
“It’s the right step for us to take,” Potts said.
Potts said the outside investigation is being conducted by a larger narcotics team, and the team looked at everything to do with the unit, funding, equipment, case reports, handling of evidence, how the officers operate in the field and staffing. Potts said they wanted someone from the outside who wasn’t afraid to come in and point things out that need to be fixed.
When asked if all of the new changes would have happened if the Buzzfeed articles were never published, Potts was unsure.
“I think we’re probably like anybody else, we would hope that we would ask those questions, but I think sometimes you see things that make you reflect and say ‘Hey, let’s take a look at this,” Potts said. “Are we doing what we say we’re doing? Are we following best practices? I’m not going to say that we only looked because of the articles, but I think the scrutiny on the unit made us and the University want to look at it.”