Fairfax police poised to join county investigations team

The Fairfax Police Department is a step away from rejoining the county’s crime squad.

The Fairfax Town Council unanimously endorsed an agreement last week between the town police and the Marin County Sheriff’s Office “Specialized Investigative Unit,” or SIU, a multiagency police team that probes illegal drug activity and major crimes.

The agreement with Fairfax is on the Marin County Board of Supervisors’ consent calendar for Tuesday. It will be adopted unless a supervisor pulls it from the agenda for further discussion.

If approved, the town would pay $6,876 for investigative services for the remainder of the fiscal year, and approximately $16,500 annually thereafter, Fairfax police Chief Rico Tabaranza said. The agency would not be contributing a detective to the unit’s staff. Under a former countywide task force, the town had paid $22,000 annually for the investigative service, Tabaranza said.

Tabaranza compared the partnership to “an insurance policy.” He said the Fairfax department is small, with 10 officers working around the clock seven days a week, and is incapable of working undercover investigations because officers are recognized in the community. Additionally, larger investigations could be costly, he said.

“So in essence, this is an insurance policy to have an affordable way for us to provide services that we need in this town without putting ourselves at risk for a liability and spending a lot of money,” Tabaranza said.

The original countywide investigative unit was called the Marin County Major Crimes Task Force. It was formed in 1977 with the financial participation of the county and 11 cities and towns.

It was formed on a recommendation by Marin’s police chiefs, who said there was a need for a countywide approach to cracking down on drug trafficking. Such crimes often can be tied to burglaries, thefts, gang problems and assaults, according to the chiefs.

The task force disbanded in 2020 because of COVID-19-strained municipal budgets, and uncertainties that the pandemic posed. But some participating agencies had withdrawn well before the pandemic.

The most recent iteration of the task force was staffed with 15 officers, including a sheriff’s lieutenant and detectives from the sheriff’s office, the Novato Police Department and the Central Marin Police Authority. The CHP, a federal drug enforcement officer and probation officers also were part of the team.

The SIU was formed as a similar but smaller crime squad months later. It’s growing again.

Today, the SIU works on a $1 million annual budget, which includes monetary contributions or a detective from participating agencies, Marin County sheriff’s Sgt. Brenton Schneider said. The sheriff’s office contributes three detectives and a sergeant. The unit is overseen by the sheriff’s investigations lieutenant, Schneider said.

Central Marin police, San Rafael police, the California Highway Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration each contribute a detective.

Mill Valley pays $44,680, Tiburon pays $36,851, Belvedere pays $13,127 and Ross pays $12,471 annually for the investigative service.

Through its investigations in 2022, the SIU has worked alongside the county’s Coordination of Probation Enforcement team to execute 62 search warrants and make 160 arrests. It has seized 13 firearms, more than $203,000 in cash and 13.2 pounds of fentanyl, according to the sheriff’s office.

Tabaranza said Fairfax historically had enlisted the task force six times a year on average since 1977. Investigations in Fairfax have included suspected sex crimes, drug activity, suspicious deaths, homicides, assaults, burglaries and other offenses.

“Currently, we have a case involving a fentanyl overdose and sales where we are at the point of needing SIU operations,” Tabaranza told the council at last week’s meeting. Tabaranza declined to provide details because the case is pending.

Tabaranza said the SIU would only be deployed when he requests support in obtaining search warrants, surveillance, or information-gathering needed to make arrests or seek charges with the district attorney’s office, or other related tasks.

Novato is also considering options for joining, said Beth Johnson, the city’s chief of police. Johnson said she’s in discussions with the sheriff’s office, but neither side has made a formal proposal for consideration. The police department was a partner in the former task force.

“It’s important for us to participate with our regional partners,” Johnson said. “It’s a force multiplier when we have a major incident. It’s a real benefit to our community.”

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