Local law enforcement officials say Ulster County’s new designation as a “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area” will give them new tools to cope with the heroin epidemic ravaging Hudson Valley communities.
The HIDTA program dates back to 1988 when it was launched in five regions, including New York, Los Angeles and South Florida, as part of the federal government’s response to the crack cocaine epidemic. Since then, the program has expanded to cover 28 regions encompassing about 17 percent of the counties in the United States. Ulster County lobbied for inclusion in the New York/New Jersey HIDTA last year and was rejected before winning inclusion in the latest round of new designations.
Sheriff’s Detective Lt. Ed Brewster of the Ulster Regional Gang Enforcement Narcotics Team helped spearhead the county’s HIDTA lobbying efforts. Brewster said the designation was based on Ulster County’s surging overdose rates and other indicators of rampant heroin use.
Statewide and locally, the numbers are alarming. In 2015, URGENT seized 4,865 “decks” of heroin in Ulster County, up almost 300 percent from 1,722 in 2014. Since 2013 local police and other first responders have been equipped with the anti-overdose drug Narcan in an effort to combat spiraling rates of death by overdose.
“I think we’re still on the upswing,” said Brewster of the heroin epidemic. “I don’t think it’s died down one little bit.”
The HIDTA designation will bring new resources on both the law enforcement and public health sides of the equation. Chauncey Parker, former director of the State Department of Criminal Justice Services (and 1978 Kingston High School graduate) heads up the New York/New Jersey HIDTA. Parker said intelligence sharing and detailed analysis of drug trends and networks was at the heart of the HIDTA concept. Each county in the HIDTA, Parker said, was assigned a dedicated intelligence officer known as a “Point of Light.” The intelligence officer remains in constant contact with their counterparts in other HIDTA counties and serves as a liaison between and local law enforcement agencies seeking information on drug suspects or networks. For example, Parker said, police in Ulster County with a drug suspect from Brooklyn in custody could use the “Points of Light” system to quickly get in contact with a detective downstate who had arrested him in the past and was familiar with his associates and street activities.
“HIDTA is not an agency, it’s an investor in an information-sharing network,” said Parker. “The idea is to get our members sitting around a table looking at a map at the same time, in the same place with the same goal.”
Among the information shared are detailed intelligence files on everything from suspected money-laundering schemes to the stamps dealers place on bags of heroin to brand their product. The program may also provide Ulster County with its own policy analyst to crunch a vast array of data in an effort to identify patterns and routes used to move heroin and other drugs into and around Ulster County. The analysts, typically young tech-savvy professionals, Parker said, are highly prized for their ability to tease out useful information from sprawling data sets.
An analyst’s job goes beyond traditional law enforcement intelligence sharing to public health issues. For example, Parker said, the analysts could use combine data on the chemical composition of seized heroin, bag stamps, overdose calls and drug dealer activity to quickly identify and warn the public about an especially deadly batch of drugs in the area. Analyses of overdose patterns, meanwhile, could help guide the distribution of Narcan and other health resources.
“The analysts are really magical in the things they can pull out of the data to give us a clearer picture of things,” said Parker.
Parker acknowledged that intelligence analyses was tougher in a place like Ulster County where many heroin dealers were addicts working individually to support their habits by making runs to trafficking centers like Washington Heights and Paterson, N.J. But, he said, fine-grained data analysis could aid police in identifying and breaking up even informal short-lived trafficking schemes.
“It’s not the Gambino Family where you have a flow chart and you know who’s who in the organization, but it’s not totally disconnected either,” said Parker. “There’s not an infinite number of people willing to go to Brooklyn or Paterson to buy heroin.”
The wrong kind of economic development
District Attorney Holley Carnright said that local law enforcement had not identified any major trafficking networks operating in Ulster County. But Brewster said that heroin’s increasing popularity had been accompanied by an increase in more organized “professional” dealers motivated by money rather than addiction.
“In the past, with heroin it would be your basic user just trying to get his 20 bags,” said Brewster. “Now we’re seeing more people who are in it to make a profit.”
Carnright said that he believed a major benefit of the HIDTA would be placing law enforcement in a better position to disrupt heroin distribution networks at their source, rather than trying to stamp them out locally.
“If we have information on how drugs get into Ulster County we can head them off and stay one step ahead of the game,” said Carnright.