Citizens Police Academy – Part III: Narcotics

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Background: The Cleveland Heights Police Department has launched a Citizens Police Academy for members of the community who are interested in learning more about how the police department operates. The first course runs 6-9 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday evenings, for seven weeks beginning Aug. 11 and ending Sept. 30, 2014. This blog post is one of a series about my experience in the program. Click here for the full series.

In 1972, my fifth-grade class at Roxboro Elementary School was ushered into the auditorium for a very important assembly.

A Cleveland Heights Police Officer had come to us with a kilo of marijuana. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but this is all I remember about it these 42 years later. Well before the days of “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E., he walked back and forth in front of us, talking in very serious tones.

The marijuana looked like a brick wrapped in foil and plastic wrap, and as the police officer paced, he held it above his shoulder like he was getting ready to wind up and throw it.

I don’t remember what he said the street value was, but I remember marveling at the foreign-ness of the word “kilo” – not knowing how it was spelled and not connecting it with the metric unit of weight (though Miss Manino had taught us the metric system way back in 2nd grade with the promise that the country would be using it for everything in 10 years).

Day 5 of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Police Academy was all about narcotics investigations. The visual aids included not only multiple grades of marijuana in clear plastic, but also cocaine – in kilo form (street value: $35,000) as well as small bags bundled for sale; crack, heroin, some drug paraphernalia, and a Tec 9 automatic handgun. Unfortunately, none of it was unfamiliar, thanks to the images we see every day on TV and the internet. But up close and in person it spoke of dark obsession and horror that was surprising to a bleeding heart lefty from the suburbs. All of it was evidence from cases that had been fully adjudicated – soon to be destroyed, according to the police officers who led the 3-hour session.

I’m going to call them Det. G, Det. Sgt. S and Cmdr. L. All three are members of the CHPD’s narcotics unit.

[I don’t mean to be melodramatic; it’s probably not necessary to protect their identities. I was able to find them all on Google easily enough, but only at that level where they’ve been thrust into the public eye. They’re not out there with Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. And I don’t want to create trouble for them; their job is dangerous enough and, truthfully, they scare me.

I might have inquired, but I’d rather manage these issues myself than invite anyone at the police department to review my work in advance. So yes, I’m filtering information to suit my interests, and as you’ll note in a moment, I’m not alone.]

Det. G, who earned a master’s degree in Administration and Justice while working on the force, also serves as a task force officer on the Drug Task Force, operated across northern Ohio by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Many of his comments are drawn from this federal experience and aren’t specific to Cleveland Heights.

As he described the process of drug investigations, it sounded like a lot of time doing surveillance and paperwork and waiting for the gears of bureaucracy to turn.

What we see on TV cop shows is realistic to a point; the DEA segments of Breaking Bad are particularly good, he said. But as you might expect, TV dramas focus on the few moments of payoff that punctuate months of toil in a real-life investigation.

The surprise to me: The work seems to rely even more on confidential informants than even TV cop shows would have you believe.

Informants tend to be motivated by just a few factors: They’re criminals themselves and may do it to work off their own charges; many like the excitement; and, of course, they do it for the money. The feds pay informants more than Cleveland Heights and other local police departments; Det. Sgt. S said he thought they get paid too much.

An informant may earn $35-$50 to get wired up and make a controlled buy of pot – twice that for crack or heroin. A day-long intelligence debriefing may be worth a few hundred dollars.

And they say crime doesn’t pay.

Det. G and Det. Sgt. S tried valiantly to bring their job to life. But while police officers have a lot of fascinating stories to tell, it’s too much to expect them to be fascinating story tellers.

The constant filtering of information gets in the way. They filter out the stuff that’s still being investigated or adjudicated, and the stuff that’s too raw and ugly. Then there’s the stuff we don’t want to know, and, I assume, a certain amount of stuff they don’t want us to know. I’m guessing there’s even a layer of stuff that they just can’t talk about – like POWs. I suppose this is the price they pay for the work they do, and they don’t take great pains to hide it.

So the result is a series of story fragments and impressions that fit together poorly, like pieces from different picture puzzles. Executing warrants with children in the house, or a girlfriend hiding in the closet with a gun… Illegals from Jamaica brazenly selling drugs from a rented house on Edgehill Drive… Law enforcement agencies selling hydroponic growing equipment through High Times magazine and tracking the people who buy it… Doing surveillance to determine how much effort will be required to break down the door of a suspected drug house when the warrant finally comes through… Columbian producers who take such pride in the purity of their product that they’ve begun branding it… Local dealers who will maximize profits by cutting the same pure cocaine “with anything that’s white, because there’s no Better Business Bureau you can go to if you happen to buy a bad batch,” Cmdr. L said.

The best I can do to summarize is this: Drugs and desperation go hand in hand, and the narcotics squad is awash in it.

“We go into neighborhoods where nobody knows anyone else who has a job,” Cmdr. L said. “What’s needed is education and the opportunity for people to use it. If we want to solve the drug problem, we need to break the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. You’re not going to arrest your way out of this.”

The three officers could themselves be the basis of a TV police show. Det. G is the streetwise detective; he wears scruffy clothes to work and has made his own undercover drug buys. He told us at the outset that he’s put off advancement opportunities because he wants to stay close to the action.

Det. Sgt. S is a man of few words and great experience, providing invaluable backup and – according to Det. G – a genius for writing search warrants that will hold up all the way through the justice system.

Cmdr. L is the elder statesman, having served a full career at the DEA and then joining the CHPD upon retirement. He speaks gently, and careful words come easily to him. At 60, according to Det. Sgt. S, he is still the first man through the door on a drug bust. He even has a superficial resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones.

“A lot of what you see in the drug world is counter-intuitive,” Cmdr. L said. “If you’re an addict and you have a friend who just died of an overdose, you want to know who the dealer is – not so you can avoid him, but because it means he has good stuff.”

The big drug threat right now is heroin; it’s proliferating and highly profitable – so the large dealers who previously specialized in marijuana or cocaine are branching out.

While Cleveland Heights is seeing its share of this activity, it is still known in law enforcement circles as an area where the dominant trade is in cocaine and marijuana.

When asked how they feel about legalization of pot, none of the three chose to offer a direct opinion. Like all the police officers I’ve met so far, they don’t seem to bother much with policy issues that are – as the cliché goes – above their pay grade. No matter what happens with marijuana, there will always be plenty of work for them to do.

Instead – also typically – they answered the question with factual statements:

Det. G: “What I’ll say is that every big drug dealer … tells us that’s where they started; they were smoking marijuana at 12 and selling it at 13, or something like that.”

I asked how much of the crime in Cleveland Heights could be tied in some way to drug activity. “That would be an interesting topic for discussion. I’d say a lot of it,” Det. G answered. “Drugs are bad for the community. Where there’s drugs, there’s criminals and criminal activity. People with weapons. Large amounts of cash. Break-ins. Property theft. Bad stuff that tears a good community apart.”


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