Video: Watertown to be home of federal drug strike force

Chris Helms

A federal anti-drug task force that targets organized crime will be based in Watertown.

In exchange for the town playing host, Watertown Police will be getting a share of the booty taken from drug dealers.

On Tuesday, Town Councilors approved a lease that will bring the Boston Strike Force of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force to the second floor of One Arsenal Place. The group’s mission is to “investigate and dismantle high-level drug trafficking and money laundering organizations,” according to Police Chief Ed Deveau.

“To be asked and selected as the host site here in Watertown for this strike force, I think it’s an honor,” Deveau said.

Under the deal, the Police Department also joins the task force, which already includes Cambridge Police, Boston Police and the State Police.

The chief said the town and Police Department would benefit from being a part of the task force. For example, when the group confiscates a car from a drug ring, Watertown might be given the vehicle for use as an unmarked car or to auction it off and use the proceeds, under some restrictions. Federal rules don’t allow “asset forfeiture” dollars to be spent on regular budget items like police officer salaries, for instance. But those monies can be used for items the department cannot afford on its own. Deveau gave the example of a special type of bulletproof vest.

Several Town Councilors expressed mixed feelings or outright opposition to the move, which brings agencies including the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to Watertown.

“I think the more weapons you have, the less safe you are,” said Town Councilor Susan Falkoff. She was the only councilor to vote against the plan, which passed on three 7-1 votes. Town Councilor John Lawn was absent.

Town Councilor Angie Kounelis, who represents the East End, questioned whether the deal made financial sense. Watertown agreed to front up to $500,000 a year in costs that would later be reimbursed by the federal government. All costs to the town would be made good, according to Town Attorney Mark Reich.

“I’ll be supporting this, but I have mixed emotions,” Kounelis said.

The lease protects the town well, according to Town Councilor Jon Hecht. Councilors had previously met in secret session, as is allowed by law in this case, to work on the provisions of the lease.

Hecht, who is an attorney, said the federal government needed a local government to act as an intermediary in terms of the lease.

“They need our help and it is help I believe we should be willing to give,” Hecht said.

Direct impacts at the One Arsenal Place site include giving the task force up to 83 parking spaces on the second floor of the nearby parking garage and outdoor lot. Under the 10-year lease, annual base rent rises from $575,946 in the first year to $822,780 in the final year. The deal could be extended another five years.