When investigating drug-related offenses, what needs to be done to alleviate the overall impact of the crime? Arrest your most chronic offenders? Work with state investigative agencies to identify strategic issues? Maybe work with community advocates to facilitate change at a community level? Why not all three?
Many areas throughout the United States, both rural and urban, find that unemployment, poverty and crime exist concurrently. Such conditions create an inviting atmosphere for illegal drug activities and often cause a surge in drug usage, thus, a rise in overdoses. West Virginia’s Interstate 79 (I-79) corridor is no stranger to similar unemployment rates, poverty, drug abuse and rise in violent crimes. With an overall population of 223,706 residents, this rural community has observed a 450% increase in violent crime from 1985–2014 (UCR).
Much of this overdose activity can be attributed to the persistence of the drug epidemic fueled by major interstates that quickly lead to cities with strong criminal enterprise ties such as Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. West Virginia is a prime target for drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and gangs outside of the state. Gangs, such as MS-13, have quickly realized these rural communities are prime locations for drug distribution operations. DTOs have increased their flow of cocaine and methamphetamine, in addition to the abundance of opiates that continue to plague northern West Virginia.
With established transportation and illicit business infrastructure in northern West Virginia, criminal enterprises continue to exploit these rural communities’ addictions to opioids and narcotics, perpetuating the drug crisis and analogous crimes within the region.
Drug abuse and trafficking is a critical threat to West Virginia, while they consistently maintain an above-average overdose rate nationally. Since 2015, complete Centers for Disease Control and Prevention national overdose data sets reinforce West Virginia’s top-ranking overdose activity. As of most complete data sets, Harrison County maintains some of the highest overdose rates in northern West Virginia. Between 2015–2018, West Virginia’s overdose rate continually outpaced the national average due to the persistence of the drug crisis. Rates per 100,000 escalated from 41.5 in 2015 to 52.0 in 2016 and 57.8 in 2017, before decreasing to 51.5 in 2018.
While stereotypes of demographics most impacted by the drug crisis exist throughout the U.S., there is no singular stereotype to best befit northern West Virginia. Most current data sets from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources indicate comparisons between county data and official state information as a whole, revealing all races, ages and classes are impacted. Additionally, demographic data compounds the commensurate relationship between the drug crisis at the county level and statewide.
Between 2015–2017, there was a 122% increase in fentanyl-related deaths throughout West Virginia, and this continues to boast the highest per capita overdose rates nationally. Counties along the I-79 corridor maintain some of the highest regional overdose rates per 100,000, with Harrison and Monongalia having over 30 per 100,000 and Marion with 14 per 100,000. Thus, with an increased flow of drugs into the community also comes an influx of crime. Violent and precipitous crimes often migrate along with escalations in overdoses.
Criminal enterprises come to the region, stay for a short time (usually three to five days) and sell heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs. They then return to their home state with their profits, repeating this cycle several times a month. Once these gangs become comfortable in the area, they tend to bring other gang members to West Virginia who establish their own drug business and customers. Moreover, DTOs will utilize lessons learned and successes from their West Virginia businesses and adapt subsequent operations in other affiliated territories nationwide.
Anecdotally, there is an approximate five-to-one profit margin on heroin brought from Pittsburgh to Harrison County. Per noted trends, one stamp of heroin, a common drug unit, sells for $4 on the street in Pittsburgh and sells for $20 in Harrison County. This is by and large due to the persistence of the opioid crisis impacting the greater I-79 region of West Virginia. With established transportation and illicit business infrastructure in northern West Virginia, criminal enterprises continue to exploit these rural communities’ addictions to opioids and narcotics, perpetuating the drug crisis and analogous crimes within the region.
As criminal enterprises continue targeting rural areas in West Virginia, building their market and maximizing their profit, law enforcement and public health agencies are struggling to keep up with the ever-increasing drug trade and associated violent crimes. Regional task forces noted a surge in methamphetamine seizure data reflecting a 3,417.88% increase between 2016 and 2018. Moreover, regional correctional programs reflected similar methamphetamine escalations in their recorded data, a 110.37% increase between 2017 and 2018.
Regional county-based efforts were initiated to combat this symbiotic relationship between drugs, crime and overall safety. As of 2018, regional agencies attempted to bring a multi-disciplinary team of law enforcement, public health, public safety and community outreach to combat overdoses and precipitous crimes while providing additional tactical coverage of the drug epidemic in West Virginia to facilitate large seizures from gangs. However, the lack of cohesion between the three aforementioned counties and the absence of dedicated crime and public health analysts taking a data-driven approach to mitigate the issue will only allow the regional drug crisis to persist. Therefore, determining drug hot spot areas, generating trend analyses, assisting in the direction of patrols and policymakers and providing tactical and strategic assessments will allow law enforcement executives, health-care practitioners and decision-makers to determine where best to employ their already scarce resources amid the ongoing crisis.
The rampant nature of the drug crisis in West Virginia necessitated the implementation of a project to bring all facets of the solution together through concepts outlined in intelligence-led policing, a form of law enforcement action where jurisdictions are guided by a combination of anecdotal data, intelligence and crime analysis. The Technology Innovation for Public Safety (TIPS) analytic team was a Bureau of Justice Assistance-funded project between the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) in West Virginia. The team’s initial task was to address the rampant nature of West Virginia’s drug crisis and any analogous crimes by acting as a justice information-sharing hub. The team worked to enhance regional justice information sharing by achieving four key objectives:
- Identify and promote technology solutions to prevent, investigate, prosecute and respond to precipitous increases in specific crime(s)
- Establish new/leverage existing partnerships to enhance the ability to respond to these specific crimes within their jurisdiction
- Develop policies and practices through technology, promoting decision-making with the intent to reduce the precipitous increase specific crime(s)
- Implement the identified information-sharing solution(s) at all levels
Through crime analysis and other types of data analysis, patterns of many types will become apparent that can assist law enforcement and the community organizations that are dealing with the problem. It is important to note the team has maintained 28 CFR Part 23 compliance in terms of information collection, dissemination and retention.
To best encompass and reflect the broad-based approach in the team’s various forms of analyses, the team worked to compile a number of data sources to best facilitate policing operations throughout northern West Virginia. Initially, the team began collecting raw call data from regional 9-1-1 centers based on calls most closely associated with drug crimes (i.e., narcotics, overdose, domestic, breaking and entering, as well as disturbance). These data sets allowed the team to generate heat maps that assisted law enforcement executives in officer and overall resource allocation.
In the same period, the team gathered Naloxone utilization reports from local EMS services, as well as local urinalysis reports from court-mandated drug testing facilities to best articulate the threat environment of what sorts of substances were being found and the overall responses by EMS services. From there, the team began focusing on data sets and information sources that would assist in mitigating threats and analogous impacts of the drug crisis by supporting crime trend analysis, open-source and social media collection, and seizure reports from local law enforcement and state task force agencies.
These information sources were utilized to generate numerous products, briefings and streams of information that provided substantiated assistance to all levels of law enforcement in West Virginia, from local agencies to federal partners throughout that state. Additionally, some of the project’s more general information bulletins and white papers were disseminated to regional community advocates and local nonprofits to provide a further nuanced analysis of the drug crisis’s impact on West Virginia as a whole.
As with most good things, the project came to an end. The team performed at an optimal level, and their efforts resound to this day throughout the West Virginia law enforcement community. Working partnerships between agencies, burgeoning narcotics intelligence units and heightened information sharing are useful tools in statewide intelligence-led policing. However, all of the aforementioned facets need to continue to affect the drastic nature of West Virginia’s drug crisis.
Randy Stickley is the intelligence specialist at NW3C. He currently leads the instruction and development of NW3C’s intelligence training and technical assistance offerings. Moreover, Randy manages content updates for the Law Enforcement Cyber Center. Randy is a certified cyber crime investigator and certified economic crime forensic examiner through NW3C.