“A dirty little war” is based on reporting and research that began in May.
The story started with a question: Is the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team (WestNET) successful?
That led to another question: What does success look like?
There was a way to find out. The answers appear in public records.
The News Tribune sought, obtained and analyzed records from the following agencies:
• Pierce County Superior Court
• Kitsap County Superior Court
• King County Superior Court
• Pierce County District Court
• U.S. District Court (Western Washington)
• U.S. Department of Justice
• Bremerton Police Department
• Kitsap County Prosecutor
• Pierce County Prosecutor
• King County Prosecutor
• Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office
• Pierce County Sheriff’s Department
• Washington State Patrol
• Washington State Department of Commerce
Core records came from two sources: WestNET’s reports to the state Department of Commerce, and records of 420 criminal cases submitted by WestNET to prosecutors in Kitsap and Pierce counties between 2007 and May of this year.
WestNET, like other drug task forces throughout the state, relies on grant money from the state and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The grant money comes with rules, including regular performance reports to the Commerce Department. Those reports include statistics supplied by WestNET related to successful prosecutions.
The News Tribune sought records of WestNET’s state reports dating back to 2001, along with other records such as grant applications, funding awards and meeting minutes of WestNET’s executive board.
The state records revealed WestNET’s claimed record of successful prosecutions over time – one of several performance measures.
The News Tribune compared WestNET’s claims with actual court records of prosecutions in Kitsap and Pierce County, where the task force does most of its business.
To narrow down the numbers, The News Tribune focused on cases from the past five years dating to January 2007. Public records requests to prosecutors in Kitsap and Pierce counties sought records of all cases submitted by WestNET, along with outcomes and sentencing data. The newspaper also requested records of WestNET cases declined by prosecutors.
The analysis relied on the state definition of success, which recently changed. Until mid-2009, success was defined as convictions and pleas versus dismissals and declines. The standard appears in state rules. From mid-2009 to the present, the definition no longer counted declined cases.
All convictions were counted in WestNET’s favor, including guilty pleas, deferrals to drug court and deferrals based on plea agreements.
The following factors were counted as failures:
WestNET’s performance in federal court is less clear. Where possible, The News Tribune examined federal cases submitted by WestNET that originated in local courts.
An exact number was hard to come by, because the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not track cases submitted by individual drug task forces. The News Tribune requested that data. Spokeswoman Emily Langlie said the U.S. Attorney’s Office uses a single computer code for all state task forces, but does not break them down individually. The News Tribune requested data related to task force cases statewide. So far, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not supplied it.
That leaves a statistical gap, but WestNET’s federal cases represent a far smaller number than cases the task force submits locally. Also, the total number of cases WestNET reported over the past five years – 375 – is less than the total number found by The News Tribune – 420.
Sean Robinson, staff writer