Pa. Drug Task Force coordinator aims to build unit's street cred

The task force is necessary, officials say, to backstop the municipalities that can't afford the luxury of a dedicated narcotics detective

By Joe Dolinsky
The Times Leader

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — A retired state trooper with more than a decade of experience in vice and organized crime has been tabbed to lead the Luzerne County Drug Task Force, as the now county-controlled unit seeks to establish itself and battle the region's booming drug scene.

Dan Mimnaugh, who recently served as police chief in Laflin and Dupont boroughs following a lengthy career in the state police, was named coordinator of the task force last month by District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis. Now, Mimnaugh said, the unit is working to build a reputation.

"Slowly, we're gaining stability with the task force," he said. "What you don't want to do is come in and start jamming it down the chiefs' throats because it's a change for everybody. We're steadying our seat and we're building a unit."

The task force is a coalition of law enforcement agencies throughout the county that collaborate on narcotics-related investigations. The task force is necessary, officials say, to backstop the many municipalities that can't afford the luxury of a dedicated narcotics detective.

Mimnaugh, hired Nov. 4 at a $48,000 salary, will handle the task force's administrative duties while also working surveillance and serving warrants, he said.

Local police, Salavantis said, are pleased with the work the task force has done since the county assumed control from the state Office of Attorney General in August.

Several drug busts have been made following a lengthy lull as Salavantis and the office of former Attorney General Kathleen Kane sparred over control of the unit. The Times Leader previously reported drug investigations had been dialed back as Salavantis sought to complete the nearly two-year process.

The unit is now off and running and out to put drug dealers on notice, Salavantis said.

"We need to make a point that we're not going to stand by while drug dealers sell these illegal and very dangerous substances to our families, to our children. We're saying that this isn't the place that you want to sell drugs, because we are active and we will arrest you," she said, citing recent raids in Hanover Township, Hazleton and Kingston.

Its coverage area in the county is divided into eight geographical zones, according to records obtained through a Right-to-Know request. They are: Kingston/West Side, Hanover/Mountain Top, state police at Wyoming/Shickshinny, Northern Luzerne County, Southern Luzerne County, state police at Hazleton, Back Mountain, and Wilkes-Barre.

The zones overseen by state police cover regions the other zones don't, Salavantis said.

The eight zone leaders' names couldn't be provided because their public identification could endanger their safety, according to the request. Zone leaders often work undercover and naming them "presents a risk to their investigations as well as their physical well-being," the request states.

The number of men working under each zone leader was also denied because each region doesn't have a dedicated amount of task force officers. Manpower varies between investigations, according to the request. Each leader's local department is responsible for their salaries and files for reimbursement from the state for work performed within the task force.

The sheer volume and potency of drugs in the county, as well as its central location near Philadelphia and New York, makes having a strong task force and an even stronger reputation necessary, she said.

Heroin, she said, is in high demand in the region, and dealers prey on that need. Suppliers that flood the region with the drug "aren't stupid," she said.

"They look for the areas that have the demand and bump up the prices. That's what we're looking at here."

Salavantis, in her second term as district attorney, acknowledged that police have found themselves vexed by the number of dealers on the streets and how quickly they're replaced, even when put behind bars.

"There is that frustration where you arrest this guy and two others step into his place," she said. "That's why we need that strong reputation."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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