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Will FBI’s shift turn heat up locally?

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Utah's head FBI agent left Monday for Washington, D.C., to meet with FBI director Robert Mueller and other lead agents from around the country to discuss the agency's increased focus on intelligence and counterterrorism.

The meeting should shed some light on how the FBI's shift in focus might impact local agencies here in Utah.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mueller has announced his agency will place more attention on gathering intelligence to prevent future terrorism.

But that means some crime investigations such as drug trafficking or bank robberies previously handled by the FBI could be turned over to local agencies already strapped for cash and manpower.

"(Local agencies) cannot be the answer to everything," Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard said. "Local government may need support."

In the past year, county budget cuts have forced Kennard to ax two helicopters and 85 deputies. Kennard said he's glad to pick up some of the slack from the FBI, as long as his office receives support from the federal government in the form of grants.

"This is going to impact me manpower-wise and cost-wise if they suggest I have to handle it," Kennard said.

Don Johnson, special agent-in-charge of the FBI in Utah, Idaho and Montana, has already announced plans to combine his office's violent crime and drug squads into one division following the 2002 Winter Games.

"We definitely won't be doing anything until after the Olympics," Salt Lake FBI spokesman Kevin Eaton said.

Eaton estimates about a quarter of the 100 FBI agents working in Utah work terrorism investigations. The remaining agents spend their time on white-collar crime, violent crime, drugs, civil rights and cybercrime.

While Eaton said it's possible some of those duties might remain, the level to which the FBI becomes involved might decrease.

"We can manipulate the dollar amount there," Eaton said. "In other words we may not touch a case under $50,000. We can prioritize within the program to accept the higher dollar-loss cases."

But the cost to local agencies caused by those changes is still unknown.

Turning more cases over to local agencies could potentially impact case loads for police departments and increase the number of state prisoners in Utah's already pinched correctional system. Over the past year the Utah Department of Corrections has had to cut more than $7 million from its budget. The cuts have prevented the opening of a new prison expansion in Gunnison and forced the department to find ways to release non-violent offenders into the community.

"Right now we're near maximum capacity so any additional prisoners, whether they be state or federal, it's going to have an impact on us," said Corrections Deputy Director Jesse Gallegos. "That's an ongoing issue with us."

Despite the likelihood that the FBI won't handle as many local cases, crimes investigated by local agencies could still be prosecuted federally, said U.S. Attorney for Utah District Paul Warner.

"It's not going to make any difference to us whether the investigative agency is a federal agency, a state agency or a local agency," Warner said. "Many crimes have concurrent jurisdiction."

Mueller visited Utah recently and discussed this issue briefly with Warner.

"It's clear that the bureau has significant new responsibilities to terrorism post 9/11," Warner said. "As a result, they're going to have to re-allocate resources, and the reality is that certain things that they have previously done they're not going to be able to continue to do. That means that other agencies, federal, state and local, will probably have a greater load to handle."

While that shift could mean a bigger case load for local agencies, it could also mean more federal money, Warner said.

"I think that, quite frankly, the terrorism element, if you want to call it that, that's been interjected into federal law enforcement and prosecution will generate additional resources."

Still, Warner acknowledges that even federal resources are limited.

"I think everyone's just kind of waiting to see in the next three to six months where the FBI's going with resources," Eaton said.

Contributing: Pat Reavy

E-MAIL: djensen@desnews.com