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Drug problem

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(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

GREENFIELD — Over the past four years, the number of criminal cases brought against drug dealers in Hancock County has steadily declined.

But experts say that’s not because the county’s drug problem has been solved.

Law enforcement officials say they’re as busy as ever investigating drug-related crimes, and the county coroner has seen an increase in the number of deaths attributed to overdoses.

There is no doubt, police say, that drugs remain the root of most crimes committed against county residents, yet there has been no team of officers dedicated to fighting the problem since mid-2010.

That’s when the Hancock County Drug Enforcement Section was last active. The three-man task force, comprised of officers from the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department and the Greenfield Police Department, was suspended indefinitely in August 2010 after its lead detective admitted to pocketing money intended for drug buys.

Since then, the lack of a systematic approach to targeting drug-dealers is reflected in data that show fewer and fewer drug dealers are being prosecuted in Hancock County each year. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies say they are cash-strapped and don’t have the resources to dedicate officers to drug investigations.

The Daily Reporter requested records from the Hancock County prosecutor’s office in order to track the most commonly filed drug-dealing felonies. The data shows the highest number of drug-dealing felonies was filed in 2008 and 2009, when the task force was at its peak in investigating drugs.

In 2009, at the height of the drug task force operation, the prosecutor’s office filed 44 drug-dealing felony cases. By contrast, the county has averaged 20 felony cases per year for the past four years, a drop of more than 50 percent.


A tough call

When Sheriff Mike Shepherd took office in 2011, it was just a few months after the sheriff’s department, which started the task force, had been exposed to widespread criticism over missing drug-buy money.

Criminal cases related to the scandal were still making their way through the court system, and the task force remained in limbo.

As the new sheriff, Shepherd was faced with a difficult decision.

Reinstating the task force might help combat drug operations in the county, but it would also require a massive overhaul of the team’s accounting practices, which were previously so lax that one member was able to dip into the funds, undetected. The detective was reportedly prosecuted only after he came forward and admitted he used the money to pay personal bills and go gambling.

“There were big issues, big problems,” Shepherd said.

A drug task force was not an entirely new concept at the sheriff’s department. Historically, the department usually dedicated one or more officers to drug investigations, former Sheriff Nick Gulling said.

Gulling, who served four terms as sheriff, said those officers received specialized training and networked with drug agents in neighboring counties.

“There was always a detective around that worked the drug cases that came up from time to time,” Gulling said. “That was kind of his specialty.”

The drug task force that started in 2007 under Sheriff Bud Gray was a more formalized version of the same concept.

But it was also plagued by a lack of oversight.

Shepherd decided against reinstating the problematic team, pointing out that the department was also in need of road officers, so it made sense to focus manpower there.

“That’s really the first line of defense for people out there in the county,” he said. “In a sense, that is still working drug problems. You have the officers out here that can react faster.”

Since then, Shepherd has encountered several roadblocks that have hindered his goal of getting more officers on patrol.

Multiple deputies have suffered injuries that required them to be off work or behind a desk instead of patrolling – one for as long as two years.

The department has also dealt with an unusual number of disciplinary issues since Shepherd took office. Since 2012, three deputies have been fired or resigned amid allegations of wrongdoing, each time leaving a shift short an officer. The incidents also tied up detectives who were assigned to conduct internal investigations into the officers’ conduct.

2014, the last year of Shepherd’s first term, marks the first time the sheriff says he feels comfortable with the number of deputies patrolling the county.

Still, a drug task force would require some realigning, and Shepherd said he’s not ready to take that step. His detective unit is already swamped with other cases, he said.

“Obviously, it’d be nice to have someone else in investigations and a couple who could work drug task force, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of coverage on the road,” he said.

The Greenfield Police Department had one officer on the task force when it disbanded, but the department doesn’t have enough drug-buy money of its own to move forward without the sheriff’s department, Police Chief John Jester said.

Each year, GPD budgets $500 for drug buys. When the task force was active, the Hancock County Council was allocating $12,000 per year to the sheriff’s department to spend on obtaining evidence.

Two-thirds of that money has since been redistributed to other department expenses.


‘Everyone was hesitant’

Morale among public safety officers was dismal after the drug task force operations ground to a halt.

Deputy Prosecutor Scott Spears remembers the ripple effect the scandal had throughout the law enforcement community.

While the task force had been responsible for the majority of drug cases that were prosecuted, road officers backed off drug investigations as well after the task force leader was arrested, Spears said.

“Everybody was hesitant,” he said. “It was very much a black eye on local law enforcement across the board. People didn’t want to get involved.”

2013 does show a slight uptick in the number of drug-dealing charges filed in the county, but prosecutors say that’s because of an outlier in the data.

An out-of-county traffic stop last summer yielded a tip about a drug-trafficking operation centered at a Greenfield restaurant, Smokin’ Hog BBQ. The tipster said packages of marijuana were being mailed to the business from California. In the end, a dozen people were connected to the case and were charged, most with multiple counts of dealing.

But it was an isolated incident, Spears said.

“That’s kind of just falling in your lap; it wasn’t officers doing surveillance,” he said. “We’re not out there, being proactive with it.”

Twenty-three counts of dealing marijuana were filed last year. All but one is connected to the Smokin’ Hog case.

The case – Operation BBQ, as it was dubbed during the investigation – began with a traffic stop out of county by the P.A.C.E. (Proactive Criminal Enforcement) team, a multi-jurisdictional team of officers that patrols Interstate 70. One local officer is assigned to the team.

That officer doggedly pursued a tip, and Prosecutor Michael Griffin said there’s no doubt solid police work went into developing the case.

“I’m proud of what the sheriff’s department did in the Smokin’ Hog case, but that doesn’t obscure the fact there has been no drug task force in this county for the past three years,” Griffin said.

As far as the P.A.C.E. team’s work, it focuses on trafficking, not the drug deals happening locally, he added.

“Dealing doesn’t happen on a federal highway,” Griffin said. “Dealing happens in neighborhoods and city streets.”


No easy solution

Over the past three years, Griffin has been approached by various officers who have expressed concerns about the gap in drug investigations.

He’s also met with the sheriff to discuss the potential for starting another task force.

“People didn’t magically stop using drugs in 2010,” Griffin said. “Drugs have been and continue to be the heart of criminal activity in this country, and if you’re not hitting directly at that, you are putting Band-Aids on public safety. No doubt about it.”

It’s not that administrators don’t realize there’s a problem or want to take steps to solve it, countered Capt. Jeff Rasche, commander of the detective division for the sheriff’s department.

The issue – manpower – has plagued local departments for years.

The sheriff’s department was swamped with burglary cases last year, Rasche cited by way of example. GPD detectives saw a significant increase in sex crimes.

Without a drug task force, drug cases are worked sporadically, and detectives focus their energy elsewhere.

“It’s no secret that drugs are everywhere, and I don’t think there’s an administration that has been in office as sheriff … or anybody that doesn’t know that and recognize that,” Rasche said. “(The) problem is trying to get your resources in a row … so you can effectively conduct these investigations.”

But dedicating a team of detectives to drug investigations is more involved than simply shifting around a few officers’ duties.

Drug investigations require constant surveillance of suspects and around-the-clock availability for officers working the cases. Identifying potential informants in the community and developing relationships with them also takes time.

Meanwhile, investigators have to respond to other crimes, knowing most are motivated by drug abuse.

“We’re behind the ball because these people, they will steal from their mother … to support their habit,” Rasche said. “They will go to great extremes to get whatever they need. That keeps us busy.”

Sheriff’s Detective Tim Cicenas, a member of the former task force, said the workload for a team dedicated to drug crimes is considerable, especially given the fact drug dealers don’t keep banker’s hours.

“Once you start, you could go to work and never go home,” Cicenas said.

Jester added that having a team of detectives working on drug cases not only divides the workload but keeps officers safe.

When officers work undercover, their team members need to be at the ready, Jester said.

“(If) that officer gets in trouble and has no backup, then I’m killing an officer,” Jester said.


Looking forward

For detectives, the county’s drug problem is about more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Rasche said he personally knows a family who lost a loved one to a heroin overdose.

“You see what it’s done to these people’s lives, what it’s done to their family,” Rasche said. “We investigated that, and we took it as far as we could. There are some things you just can’t finish. You want to. You can’t.”

Rasche said he has researched the possibility of partnering with an existing task force outside the county. On the plus side, that would give county authorities access to additional resources. By the same token, it could also remove an officer from local investigations for various lengths of time as cases are pursued elsewhere.

“… We need to be doing something,” Rasche said. “If this is a small step in a big plan for us to start doing something, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Given what happened with the last task force, Jester added that he would have some reservations about re-establishing a team on the local level.

“There would have to be a very defined checks-and-balances system, a vey defined leader of the team, very defined set of goals for the team,” Jester said. “I would be all about putting an officer on the task force, but I would have to be able to justify adding caseload to our current detectives … to let a guy specialize.”

Shepherd said that over the past eight years, the sheriff’s department has replaced various officers who have left, but the addition of an entirely new position last year was the first since 2004.

The three latest hires will complete their training this year. After that, Shepherd said, he might re-evaluate the department’s needs. What that means for investigating drug cases is unclear.

“I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Shepherd said. “Now, we’ll have better coverage, and we can start maybe rearranging some. But until then, I just don’t see it being feasible.”

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