Pubdate: Mon, 29 Dec 2003
Source: News & Advance, The (VA)
Copyright: 2003 Media General
Author: Bill Freehling, Lynchburg News & Advance


The Polaroid pictures tell the tale - of a lucrative drug trade alive
and well in Central Virginia.

The photos are posted on a bulletin board in the office of the
Lynchburg Police Department's Vice and Narcotics Unit. They show off
big drug raids over the years.

There's the time 200 pounds of marijuana from Arizona was seized.
Disheveled vice officers surround a kilo of cocaine and smile for the
camera. Bags of crack, reams of big bills, lids of heroin - they all
make this "greatest hits" board.

Since 1984, almost 7,000 drug arrests have been made in Lynchburg,
according to police data.

"We have a significant drug problem for a city of our size," said Lt.
K.T. Swisher, who heads the vice unit.

Lynchburg vice officers won't tell you the problem has improved - in
fact, they say there are more drugs in the city now than ever before.

"There is no getting rid of it," said vice officer D.J. Riley. "We're
out there so it doesn't take over. We're just preventing chaos."

The problem isn't isolated to any race or gender, although some are
disproportionately represented.

In the first half of 2003, about 73 percent of people admitted to
Lynchburg's Arise detox center were men. Males made up about 83
percent of the Lynchburg drug arrests in 2002.

The data on race isn't as clear-cut. In the first half of 2003, about
72 percent of the Arise detox admissions were white. But blacks
comprised 60 percent of the city's drug arrests in 2002.

Most of the city's drugs arrive on a route that starts in New York
City and filters through Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Swisher said.

Central Virginia's problem is not confined to Lynchburg, Swisher said,
but the city is the hub, with residents from surrounding counties
coming to buy drugs.

Marijuana and cocaine are the most available, Swisher said. Heroin use
has increased in recent years, and methamphetamine is a growing
problem in the counties.

Vice officers say most Lynchburg residents are naive about the
widespread availability of drugs. Many think it's just an inner-city
problem, which isn't the case.

"It's everywhere, man," Riley said. "You could probably throw a rock
and hit a drug house."

Officers say most of the city's 15 to 20 open-air drug markets are in
the police department's East Division - downtown and the surrounding
areas. Through November this year, 45 percent of the reported
drug-related incidents have been in that division.

The trade is better hidden in other parts of the city, and the kind of
drug differs, police say. For example, marijuana is all over, while
crack cocaine is mostly in the East Division.

Central Virginia is an attractive place for Richmond and Washington
drug dealers to do business. With supply lower and demand still high,
dealers can fetch a better price in Lynchburg than in the more
competitive big-city environment.

"Everywhere you turn there's someone trying to make a buck," said vice
officer M.L. Jamison.

In Lynchburg, five vice officers are tasked with keeping the problem
under control. They also investigate prostitution and gambling, but
narcotics take up about 90 percent of their time. With more complaints
coming in than can be handled, they pick and choose battles.

"There's no way we can possibly address every single person involved
in the drug trade," Swisher said.

They do some undercover work. The vice unit got $75,000 from the
police budget for operations this year. Some money is spent buying
drugs to gain evidence for distribution charges.

Money is sometimes recouped when drug pushers are convicted. The drugs
they buy and seize are taken to state labs for testing and are later

In a city the size of Lynchburg, it's difficult to keep police
identities concealed. That means much of the vice unit's work involves
behind-the-scenes intelligence gathering and surveillance.

Neighborhoods where residents complain of drug use are watched
closely. Signs of drug activity include cabs and pedestrians
frequently arriving at houses and not staying long.

People carrying around signs of wealth - cell phones, pagers, jewelry,
cash - who have no job also draw attention. Users often have visible
track marks, dilated pupils, frequent nose bleeds, rotting teeth and
frail bodies.

The vice unit also uses informants with firsthand knowledge of the
drug trade.

When they get evidence of drug trafficking, officers go to a
magistrate for a search warrant. Lynchburg tactical teams usually
carry out the raids, and patrol officers also make a significant
number of drug arrests.

In exchange for their help, informants either get money or reductions
in criminal charges. What they get depends on the reliability of their
information and the size of the resulting arrest.

The vice unit also works with outside jurisdictions - including
sheriff's departments in surrounding counties, and federal agents from
the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

A sixth Lynchburg vice officer is assigned to the Central Virginia
Regional Drug Task Force - which also includes officers from the
Virginia State Police, and sheriff's departments in Campbell, Amherst
and Appomattox counties.

No matter the agency, the goals are the same - public safety. Data
show that about half the criminals committing major crimes test
positive for illegal drugs. Distribution often leads to deadly turf

The drug trade shows no sign of letting up. And there promises to be a
sequel for the Lynchburg vice unit's greatest hits bulletin board.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake