August 7, 2002
The county's new Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE) car is a 2001 Dodge Viper RT/10 capable of going up to 200 mph.
The cost: $93,000.
"With television and video games, it's hard to impress kids and grab their attention. The whole point of this car is the grab the kids' attention," said Lt. William Terrell, sheriff's office spokesman. "Once we have their attention, then we can focus on getting them to listen and show them how to resist peer pressure to use drugs and alcohol."
Others, however, wonder if the car, which recently won a national contest in Las Vegas, Nev., for its custom paint job, cost too much.
Camden County Commissioner Bob Becker called the win "a publicity gimmick'' that gives the department a lot of notoriety.
"But does it improve law enforcement?'' he asked. "I would hope it would. I have my doubts.''
The sports car was purchased with forfeited drug money from seizures made by Camden deputies on Interstate 95, Terrell said.
"It didn't cost the taxpayers anything. It all was paid for entirely with confiscated drug money," he said. "And if we can reach even just one kid with this car, then it's worth it."
The car itself was $78,000. Additional costs include: a trailer, $5,500; paint job, $5,000; custom embroidery, $300; GPS system, $1,000; and police package including blue lights, siren and radio, $3,000.
The department's DARE officer, Capt. David Gregory, acknowledged that a few people have complained about the money spent on the car, but that most recognize its drawing power and the importance of the anti-drug message.
"The sheriff's response has been you can't put a price on a child's life,'' he said.
And the DARE car may indeed save some lives and improve others, Gregory said. Although some studies have asserted that DARE programs are not cost-effective, Gregory says he has anecdotal evidence that contradicts the surveys.
"I've seen some kids in troubled environments come out of that clean. If I had to sum it up in one word, it's hope,'' he said.
If the forfeited assets were not used for the DARE car, it could not be used in public works projects, for county salaries and other items that are funded by property taxes, Gregory said.
U.S. Attorney Rick Thompson said there are strict guidelines on the use of assets seized in federal drug cases that are turned over to counties.
"Broadly speaking, it must be law-enforcement related,'' said Thompson, adding that a DARE car fits because it is drug education.
Becker said he would like to have some input on how future purchases using drug money are made.
"The trouble still comes down to seized asset money is county money and not just the sheriff's money,'' he said.
Should Sheriff Bill Smith spend some of the money improperly, federal officials would demand repayment from the County Commission, Becker said.
"I don't disagree with what he's done with it,'' Becker said of the car purchase. "I had no opportunity to disagree. He just did it and he had the authority to do it.''
County Administrator Barry King said that, to his knowledge, Smith spent no tax, fine or fee revenue on the car beyond paying the salaries of officers who worked on it.
But some commissioners have challenged Smith's request for a $3.7 million annual budget for his department and persuaded him to reduce it to $2.8 million, King said. Even with the reduction, Smith is spending $64.13 per capita, far higher than the state average of $39 per capita for counties like Camden, King said.
Of the DARE car expense, King said, "He [Smith] calls it other people's money, but we have to pay the cost of the [DARE] officer.''
Both Becker and King cited studies that say DARE is only marginally successful and noted that many departments have dropped it entirely.
Camden County's drug enforcement efforts along I-95, a well-known drug pipeline between South Florida and the northeastern United States, have been financial boon for the Sheriff's Department. Terrell said that over the past 15 years the county has seized more than $14 million in cash, with those funds going to buy patrol cars, weapons and training and education programs.
"We have used those funds for a lot of less flashy purposes than this car," he said.
He said the same county officials critical of the department for buying the Viper don't mention that the sheriff's department didn't used budgeted tax dollars for buying police cars. That's because seized drug funds were used to purchase those vehicles, he said.
"We knew we were going to get some criticism on this, but the sheriff really believes it's worth the cost to reach kids about the dangers of drugs," he said. "We realize that other counties that don't have an interstate running through them wouldn't have this ability [to buy the car] and we wouldn't either if we didn't have I-95."
Staff writer Greg Walsh contributed to this report.
Staff writer Teresa Stepzinski can be reached at (912) 264-0405 or via e-mail at tstepzinskijacksonville.com.
Staff writer Terry Dickson can be reached at (912) 264-0405 or via e-mail at tdicksonjacksonville.com.
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