County moves on drug officer plans

GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department is one step closer to bringing a narcotics investigator into its ranks.

The Hancock County Council on Wednesday approved the transfer of $100,000 from the county’s reserve funds into its local option income tax fund, which is designated by state law for public safety initiatives. These dollars will be used to hire a new detective dedicated to drug-related investigations, an individual the sheriff’s department is eager to bring on as quickly as possible, officials said.

The $100,000 will fund not only the officer’s salary but benefits and police equipment.

The county’s reserve funds are traditionally earmarked for emergencies. After statistics showed a rise in overdoses and deaths related to heroin and other narcotic drugs, the council in August heeded warnings from law enforcement and deemed the issue worthy of a quick response.

“If there were ever a public safety emergency, it’s this heroin epidemic we’re heading into,” council member Kent Fisk said.

The county’s drug task force dissolved in 2010; when Sheriff Mike Shepherd took office in 2011, he said he wanted to focus the department’s resources on boosting road patrol. But the influx of drug cases has changed the department’s focus, he said.

Currently, the departments’ detectives split their time between narcotics and other investigations, and it’s common for them to spend about 40 to 60 hours on one narcotics case. That means their other investigations might go untouched for more than a week, officials said.

The new detective would be dedicated strictly to narcotics investigations, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy, and would report to the head of the investigations unit, Detective Capt. Jeff Rasche. The department will likely promote a road deputy to a detective rank and will hire a new officer to take on road patrols.

Shepherd said his new detective will work with neighboring police departments. In 2016, the Greenfield Police Department anticipates filling a similar position, but many of the county’s smaller departments don’t have the manpower to put an officer on narcotics full time, Shepherd said.

“The goal is to work with the other agencies,” he said. “If the investigation heads into another town, … we would go to them, let them know, and then they can work with our officers. But they can’t necessarily dedicate someone to that.”

County officials knew that was the case, Fisk said. He said he hopes the new hire will show potential drug-dealers they are not welcome in Hancock County.

The narcotics officer’s daily work will center on investigating information called in to the county’s drug tip line, Burkhart said. Those calls are treated as leads and will hopefully make the department more proactive when it comes to drug arrests, he said.

Too often, narcotics investigations start with the body of an overdose victim, and police are forced to work backward to find out where the person bought the drugs, he said.

Such was the case last week, when the body of 61-year-old Theodosia Regina Queen was found in the Jacob Schramm Nature Preserve in the 1600 block of County Road 600W. A friend of Queen’s told police he dumped her body in the wooded area after she overdosed on heroin, according to court documents.

That case was treated as a death investigation first and foremost, Burkhart said. But once it became apparent drugs were involved, detectives’ attention turned to where the Indianapolis woman might have obtained the heroin police believe killed her. The case remains under investigation, but the new officer would likely play a lead role in similar cases in the future.

“We don’t want what we had in New Palestine, to have a death and then backtrack to find out who the dealer was or who the supplier was,” Burkhart said. “We want to get it off the street.”

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Caitlin VanOverberghe is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3237 or cvanoverberghe@greenfieldreporter.com.