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Huntington releases drug seizure numbers for 2018

January 13, 2019
Officers with the Huntington Police Department raid a home along the 900 block of Washington Avenue on Jan. 3, 2018, in West Huntington. The police department took more than $500,000 worth of illegal drugs off the streets after executing a record number of 100 search warrants in 2018.

HUNTINGTON — While the Huntington Police Department took more than $500,000 worth of illegal drugs off the streets in 2018 after executing a record number of 100 search warrants, the department’s leaders say the city still has a long way to go.

Among trends from last year, the city of Huntington saw heroin seizures drop by 60 percent in 2018 compared with 2017, while meth seizures went up more than 366 percent, which could be attributed to a large bust early in the year.

While Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial and Capt. Rocky Johnson, commander of the Special Investigations Bureau, said one good bust could skew the percentage change from year to year, they are taking a proactive approach to meth making its way back into the city.

Dial said he believes partnerships with federal entities and a more aggressive approach to enforcement through the city’s violent crime initiative is helping the department tackle the issue.

“We do not tolerate illegal drug sales in the city,” he said. “Our police officers perform rapid, thorough investigations to ensure arrest and prosecution of drug dealers. Strict enforcement is a key element of solving this problem.”

“Our police officers perform rapid, thorough investigations to ensure arrest and prosecution of drug dealers. Strict enforcement is a key element of solving this problem.”

— Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial

Record search warrants, drug seizures

The Huntington Police Department drug unit executed 100 search warrants in 2018, averaging one about every three or four days. In 2017, 58 were executed. Dial and Johnson said it was the most they had seen by far in their nearly three decades of police work.

In addition to search warrants, the department executed 225 cellphone warrants, a new calculation done by the department.

In 2018, the drug unit seized 1,762 grams of heroin, which is a 59 percent reduction from the 4,319 grams seized in 2017. The unit also started in 2018 tracking the amount of fentanyl seized, which was 469 grams. Johnson said as fentanyl enters the city unmixed with other drugs, police are now able to calculate the amount, whereas it used to count toward heroin amounts.

The department saw a nearly 367 percent increase of meth seizures, from 504 grams in 2017 to 2,353 in 2018. One bust alone brought in 3 pounds of meth, which equates to more than half of that.

Marijuana numbers dropped by more than half, from 23,000 grams seized in 2017 to just 10,465 in 2018.

Crack cocaine seizures dropped by 54 percent, from 716 in 2017 to 323 grams in 2018, and other cocaine retrieval remained about level, dropping from 197 in 2017 to 183 grams in 2018.

The unit seized 2,511 pills in 2018, a 289 percent increase from 645 seized in 2017. Johnson said the pills were a mixture of whatever the possessor could get his or her hands on.

The department found no ecstasy last year.

The total number of arrests made by the unit increased from 214 in 2017 to 250 last year, which has so far led to more than 83 felony indictments — 17 more than the year previous. Of those arrests in 2018,186 were for felony offenses and 64 were misdemeanors.

The drug unit also seized 27 cars, 16 more than in 2017, and saw a 43 percent increase in guns seized, from 65 in 2017 to 93 in 2018.

A total of $566,900 worth of drugs was taken off the streets. Johnson said it was difficult to calculate how many lives that means were saved.

In addition to that, the department seized more than $201,176 in cash in 2018, compared with $138,241 seized the previous year, totaling $768,076 in total seizures counting the drug value.

Homicide, overdose rates down

Huntington saw a sharp decrease in criminal homicides, from 19 in 2017 to eight in 2018. It also saw a more than 40 percent drop in overdoses, from 1,831 in 2017, the most the city had seen, to 1,089 in 2018.

An increase in meth usage due to pricing and more aggressive police tactics and partnerships were cited as two reasons for this. Johnson said the number of violent offenders getting off the streets can be seen in the number of guns used for illegal activity taken off the street last year.

“That’s the people we target,” he said. “You’re taking care of two things at once. You’re taking care of violence, preventing violence by getting guns off the street, and you’re stopping the dope from making it to the street.”

Johnson also pointed to a 100 percent compliance rate with landlords who received 102 nuisance letters last year in helping the problem.

A nuisance letter is sent anytime a warrant is executed or the police believe illegal activity is occurring at a home. The landlord has 10 days to call police after receiving the letter to discuss the issue and resolutions. About 90 percent of the time, they seek eviction, he said.

Hard work, teamwork pay off

The Special Investigations Bureau is small, with just eight members, but they are not alone.

Johnson said the response from the community after a record crime year in 2017 was amazing. He said it used to be community members would leave unhelpful information on the tip line, but last year it helped the unit conduct 136 investigations that led to 145 arrests.

Johnson says the best part of going on a bust is seeing neighbors driving by honking their horns and giving his unit thumbs up, encouragement he said keeps them going.

November had been dubbed “nuisance November,” with the unit focusing on nuisance problems throughout the city, rather than searching for big busts, Johnson said. While the busts did not lead to a large increase in seizure numbers, it still helped the community.

Those busts most likely led to a reduction in crime numbers for the area around the homes, Johnson said, because the users were not breaking into cars or committing other crimes to buy drugs from the locations.

When the unit’s officers carry out a raid, they have help from the patrol bureau and others within HPD to safely conduct their duties. As part of re-energized partnerships, they also have at their side the office of the U.S. Attorney for Southern West Virginia, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security, and local or state officials.

The partnerships came after the December 2017 announcement of the violent crime initiative, an idea formed by Detective Shane Bills, which was created as a response to an uptick in violent crime in 2017.

As part of that initiative, violent drug offenders are being targeted for rapid investigation to get them off the streets quicker, Dial previously said.

Mike Stuart, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said he does not believe there has ever been a better partnership between Huntington and federal law enforcement agencies.

The partnership was highlighted in April 2018 through Project Huntington and Operation Saigon Sunset when nearly 100 individuals were targeted throughout Huntington as more than 200 local, state and federal law enforcement agents conducted over a dozen raids.

Stuart said the raids sent a message of hope to the community that desperately needed it.

He believes by continuing to build the partnerships, 2018 will pale in comparison to the statistics of 2019.

Putting dealers on watch

A large percentage of the 250 arrests from 2018 are dealers coming from out of town to sell drugs in the city. Johnson said he hopes those people not returning home on time because of their arrests sends a message that Huntington is no longer the place to be for illegal activity.

While the men said the heroin and fentanyl seizure numbers were promising, the high increase in meth has police on the lookout.

Johnson said the reason for the change could be due to meth’s cheapness at $75 per gram compared with $175 per gram for heroin or fentanyl. Johnson said meth is also being used more because it is being mass produced and can be bought in bulk. The meth isn’t coming from the backwoods of West Virginia, however.

While meth doesn’t take as much resources from first responders, with meth comes a different type of user and different type of crimes. Dial said. While both drugs destroy people, they do it in different ways.

“This isn’t some kid with a ... bottle and some pseudoephedrine he got from the drugstore,” he said. “This is pharmaceutical-grade methamphetamine coming from Mexico or wherever, and this is the real deal.”

Dial said the amount of meth seized last year was high because of law enforcement’s aggressive approach.

Department shifts focus

Stuart said the increased meth usage is not surprising, since drug traffickers have always adapted and adjusted to aggressive law enforcement efforts.

“We are so eager to celebrate victory that we have to be careful to not celebrate so quickly” he said. “We have seen this before.”

Stuart said having strong partnerships with drug rehabilitation centers and similar programs helps law enforcement stay on top of that adaptation.

Dial and Johnson agreed that the partnerships need to continue to strengthen in 2019, and they hope to focus their attention on firearm-related crimes, which they believe will lead them to keeping more drugs and violent offenders off the streets.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter@HesslerHD.

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