In Baltimore, a small amount of heroin might sell for $100. But that same amount on the streets of Harford County, just 25 miles away, could be worth as much as $200.
The possible economic profit to a drug dealer is just one of the bonds tying Harford County into the regional fight against illegal drugs. It’s a role which was formally acknowledged last year when the county was incorporated into the Baltimore-Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal designation which police hope will give investigators additional resources and interagency cooperation.
Those investigators are members of the Harford County Task Force, part of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Division, which detailed its operations for members of the Citizens Police Academy Tuesday night.
According to Captain Duane Williams, the division’s commander, the narcotics task force was formed in 1988 under the direction of the Maryland State Police. The Sheriff’s Office took over administration and supervision of the task force in 2001, becoming one of only two task forces in the state to be run by an agency other than the state police. (The other is in Frederick County.)
Along with the Sheriff’s Office, the task force’s board includes representatives from the state police, the police departments of Aberdeen, Bel Air, and Havre de Grace, and the state attorney’s office. Williams said the unit focuses on “mid- to upper-level drug cases” and attempts to finance itself through forfeitures of assets in drug cases.
“We try to ease the burden on the taxpayer,” Williams said. “Some years are better than others. As the economy goes, so the drug dealers go.”
In addition to the task force, the division also includes a criminal intelligence unit, which works with street-level contacts, and a “homeland defense” section which conducts yearly security and threat assessments on major local infrastructure such as the Conowingo Dam and the Clorox facility in Riverside. The division also maintains a civilian intelligence analyst, an equipment specialist and technician, and a financial investigator to follow money trails in various cases.
Williams said the narcotics unit is comprised of some of the most highly-trained deputies in the sheriff’s department, and works in tandem with federal agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI to break drug cases which don’t always have their roots locally.
The unit had one of its biggest successes last April when it arrested 14 members of an alleged prescription drug ring. While about half of the cases have gone through the judicial system locally, several others are now with federal authorities, including the charges against the leader of the ring, who may have been transporting controlled substances across state lines.
Two months later, Harford County was inducted into the Baltimore-Washington High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. Through it, the sheriff’s office will receive additional federal support including information sharing and access to grants and other material support.
Williams said the bust of the drug ring didn’t influence Harford County’s inclusion, as the long-awaited decision had been made well before its official announcement. The choice to include Harford County was based on an assessment of the number of drug cases and seizures local law enforcement authorities handled, the number of drug overdose deaths locally, and the problems with prescription pill abuse.
“It’s not like we went and begged for it,” Williams said. “It was a decision based on that assessment…and money available from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.”
“Geographically, we fit into the puzzle,” Williams said.
He added that the Harford County Task Force has led the state over the last several years in drug investigations and arrests.
Williams said heroin remains an issue because of its relatively cheap cost, but that prescription drug abuse remains the largest drug-related problem in Harford County. One Oxycontin pill may go for $20 to $40 on the street, and can be obtained in a variety of ways.
Williams’ presentation was followed by a segment on drug identification by Sgt. Chris Parrish, a detective with the unit. Among the highlights of his talk:
–Parrish led off with an internal “motivational video” entitled “Air Assualt” [sic]. The video depicted an unidentified sheriff’s deputy taking off in a National Guard helicopter to search for marijuana growing operations. Still photo images of officers posing with seized plants followed, as well as an assortment of other photos from crime scenes and of suspects arrested, interspersed with slides of brief phrases. Among them was a photo of a black suspect apparently under arrest and sitting in a chair, followed by the words, “Please offica’, don’t take my shit.”
The video was set to the song “Rooster” by Alice in Chains, an ironic choice (or maybe not) considering the fate of that band’s lead singer.
–Answering a class member’s question about the video, Parrish said a deputy is in fact able to identify a marijuana plant—which can grow as high as 10 or 12 feet—from the air.
–A pound of high-grade marijuana has a street value of approximately $3,000 to $5,000, he said, while a kilogram of cocaine retails from between $20,000 to $28,000 and a kilo of heroin can retail from $100,000 to $180,000.
–Across the nation, on average, heroin is 38 percent pure, Parrish said—but in Baltimore, the average is 70 percent.
–Heroin horror story: Among pictures of track marks and arms covered in sores (injecting heroin through a scabbed over wound is known as “trap dooring”—now you know), Parrish shared a particularly stomach-churning anecdote. Apparently at some point in the not-so-distant past, a local gentleman traveled to Baltimore to obtain the services of a woman of questionable morals. This woman had suffered a broken wrist, which had not been allowed to heal properly—because she was injecting into the break. When police eventually arrived at the location where the probably-not-that-happy couple was found, they were forced to call EMS to treat the woman’s now-gangrenous limb. Doctors were forced to remove at least half of her arm.
Don’t do drugs, kids.
–“It’s a dark, dark world some of our guys have to live in, especially the narcotics guys,” Parrish said. “It’s a difficult thing, but they manage to do it. Anything you can do to help us, tips or on down the line, we appreciate it.” The Special Investigations Division has a drug tip line, which citizens can call anonymously to report illegal drug activity, criminal activity or any suspicious or terrorist tips. The phone number is (410) 836-7788.
Next Week: A look at the Criminal Investigations Division.
A bag containing marijuana seized in connection with a case.