State patrol making more drug busts

The Ohio State Highway Patrol has significantly boosted drug arrests and seizures with an increased focus on what officials call a critical part of the fight against narcotics: their transportation.

The patrol reported this week that drug arrests were up 26 percent in the first seven months of this year compared with the same period in 2011. That follows a significant boost in heroin and marijuana seizures on the state’s roadways in the first six months of this year, by a whopping 327 percent for heroin and more than double for marijuana.

Officials both inside and outside the state patrol said these increases are significant because Ohio’s multiple interstate highways make it a place where drugs frequently transported. By stopping their movement, they said, troopers take drugs out of circulation and begin or continue larger investigations.

Unlike some other law enforcement units, which can take weeks or months investigating before a major drug bust, the patrol’s arrests and seizures often occur because of a routine traffic stop. Troopers have been trained to look for signs of unusual behavior or activity related to drugs, and the patrol has assigned personnel and K-9 handlers to Criminal Patrol Units that focus on drug activity.

“You know when you pull 220 pounds of marijuana out of a vehicle, that made an immediate impact on society,” said patrol Lt. Jon Payer, commander of the Criminal Patrol Unit that covers southwest Ohio, from Auglaize County to the Ohio River. “You have saved lives. You can immediately measure that. You can’t necessarily do that if you stop someone for going 20 miles over the speed limit.”

The patrol’s 6,137 drug arrests last year came as part of 1.4 million contacts with motorists. The troopers’ responsibilities continue to include enforcement of everything from impaired driving to speeding to seat belt violations, but the attention to drug transportation has increased.

Officials said the patrol is critical in combating illegal drugs because they are often transported in bulk. Seizures keep them from arriving elsewhere for distribution.

“That’s what they do, and that’s where the drugs are being transported,” said John Burke, commander of the Warren County Drug Task Force and president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators. “It’s a natural fit for (the patrol) to be more heavily involved.”

Raising attention

Patrol units committed to fighting drugs were first created in the early 1990s, Payer said. Focus shifted to more individual K-9 handlers in the early 2000s, but the patrol recently returned to multiple-person teams with greater training and focus on searching for drug activity.

In turn, the amount of seized drugs has increased. In the first six months of this year, the patrol confiscated 27,875 grams of heroin, more than four times last year’s take of 6,525 in the same period and already more than 2011 and 2010 combined (26,723). The nearly 4,000 pounds of marijuana taken by troopers in the first half of 2012 was more than double the amount seized in the first half of 2011.

Drug arrests have also grown, from 4,720 in 2007 to 6,137 in 2011. Through July, the patrol made 4,593 such arrests this year.

Officials attribute the increase to training, awareness and cooperation between units like the patrol’s Office of Investigative Services (which moves investigations forward) and Criminal Intelligence Unit (which manages and shares information).

The Criminal Patrol Unit covering southwest Ohio, one of five in the state, includes two lieutenants, two sergeants and five troopers who are also K-9 handlers, Payer said. It is part of an increasingly cooperative patrol, both inside and outside its ranks.

“When you put that together in one picture, it’s something we’ve never done,” Payer said.

Using partnerships

Earlier this week, Indiana authorities stopped a vehicle that contained more than 20 pounds of heroin. More information about its content and destination was discovered through communication with officials in Ohio and with the state patrol. Authorities announced the stop led to arrests in Columbus, the drugs’ destination.

Such cooperation is newer and growing, Ohio patrol officials said. It is also increasing within the state. Earlier this year, the state patrol and the Warren County Drug Task Force partnered to include state patrol troopers on the task force, the first collaboration of its kind, Burke said.

“I think it just shows you a huge commitment from the upper administration (of the state patrol),” Burke said. “Obviously the priorities have shifted somewhat, and more resources are being devoted to this.”

The focus comes at a time when the state patrol has reported better financial health. The patrol’s training academy graduated its first recruiting class in February after lying dormant for 18 months while the patrol shifted its funding source from gas taxes to license and registration fees. It has also recruited for 180 more academy training spots while hoping to plug holes created by attrition.

Its focus, meanwhile, is increasing on drugs traveling through the state.

“We know there are people trafficking drugs in the state of Ohio, and we’re not getting all of it, we know that,” said Lt. Anne Ralston, a state patrol spokesperson. “But we are having an impact on these people trafficking drugs in the state of Ohio. We know we’re having an impact because of how many drugs we’re getting.”