County boosts anti-drug efforts

GREENFIELD — The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department plans to add a drug detective to the force — its second addition in as many years — to further efforts to combat a narcotic drug abuse problem county officials have called a “state of emergency.”

County officials dipped into reserve funds to pay for an undercover detective in 2015 — the county’s first officer dedicated to drug investigations in five years — and they support signing on a second such investigator in 2017.

Hancock County Council members plan to dip into savings again to pay for the additional position. In September, the council declared the county’s drug problem a state of emergency and moved $100,000 into the sheriff’s department’s budget; the officer was hired in October.

Talks of the 2017 budget are still in their early stages; sheriff’s administrators have not presented a final figure for how much money they’ll need to hire the second detective, though Councilman Kent Fisk said he expects the amount to be less than what was transferred in 2015.

Whatever the cost, having the extra officers will be worth it, Fisk said.

“They have had so much success so far, but we learned there was a lot more work,” Fisk said. “We’re a long way from curbing the problem.”

The first narcotic detective opened 30 criminal cases and brought 63 criminal charges against 16 defendants in his first six months on the job; with additional support, department officials expect to ramp up those efforts.

The sheriff’s department cited an increase in overdose deaths when asking for an additional officer last year. They blamed the deaths on the lack of a concentrated drug-enforcement effort; the county’s drug task force was promptly disbanded in 2010 after the lead detective admitted to stealing $10,000 from the drug-buy fund.

Twenty-two people died as a result of substance abuse in 2015, coroner statistics show — more than twice the number of overdoses the county had in 2011.

The sheriff’s department originally asked the county to fund two narcotics detectives in 2015, but the council approved the emergency hire of only one officer, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s chief deputy.

It became clear quickly the drug-case workload was a two-man job, he said. This second detective will work undercover as well.

Though they still won’t form a specialized drug task force, both officers will work closely with a narcotics detective added to the Greenfield Police Department’s ranks in 2016, who does similar undercover work, Burkhart said.

Greenfield Chief John Jester said he also plans to ask for a second drug detective in the coming years, though he has not decided when the best time to add that position will be.

Sheriff’s officials expect catching drug dealers will be much harder as their efforts enter a second year, said Capt. Jeff Rasche, head of the sheriff’s department investigations unit.

Things have slowed a bit since April because drug dealers have learned deputies are working hard to put offenders behind bars, Rasche said. Having a two officers working tough cases will better their chances, he said.

“It was a target-rich environment when we first started,” Rasche said. “Now, they know we’re making arrests and serving warrants. It can’t be a one-man operation.”

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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.