Pubdate: Sat, 06 Nov 2004
Source: News-Item, The (PA)
Copyright: 2004 The News Item
Author: Mark Gilger, Staff Writer


The 40 arrests made in a sweeping bust Oct. 8 highlight the effort to
combat illegal drug use in the region.

Last month's raid reached across Northumberland County from Mount
Carmel to Milton in an operation led by the Northumberland-Montour
Drug Task Force.

Since the unit's formation in October 1998, 302 arrests have been made
by the task force. And while the fight against drugs often seems like
a hopeless battle, law enforcement agencies in the region expressed
confidence that the joint effort is making a difference.

"The task force is vital to the war on drugs," Shamokin Chief of
Police Richard Nichols said. "Without it, competent prosecution of
these time-consuming cases would be just about impossible. Without the
task force, no independent municipality would have the resources to
pursue these cases."

The numbers are certainly noticeable. In addition to the 302 arrests,
the task force has initiated 391 drug-related cases; served 62 search
warrants; conducted 46 organized raids; seized 46 weapons, including
guns and knives; seized 28 vehicles valued at $148,000; made 57 cash
seizures totaling $68,852.63; seized eight cell phones, one house, and
one computer with a total value of $180,800; and obviously seized
plenty of illegal drugs.

Drug use has risen dramatically in the past five years in
Northumberland County and, despite the task force's success, law
enforcement agencies continue to stress the need for greater community
involvement to combat the serious problem.

Northumberland County District Attorney Tony Rosini and local police
chiefs offered their views on the drug problem in their respective
communities and provided a list of drug arrests made by their
respective departments since 2000.

How it started

Rosini said the task force has been very helpful in fighting the drug
problem plaguing the region.

He and Montour County District Attorney Robert Buehner spearheaded
efforts to implement the task force through funding provided by the
state Attorney General's Office. Initially, the task force received
$55,000 to conduct operations and currently has a budget of $62,500.

The money is used to pay officers for time spent conducting
drug-related investigations and for training, equipment and clothing.
Rosini said the task force also uses funds obtained through Project
Safe Neighborhood grants provided by the U.S. Attorney General's
Office and forfeiture funds derived from cash, property and vehicles
seized in drug busts.

Rosini said all 13 police departments in the county are involved with
the task force, which is led by Point Township Police Chief Gary
Steffen and Montour County Sheriff Ray Gerringer. He said more than
100 officers are members of the force, which also receives assistance
from a tactical narcotics team from the state Attorney General's Office.

The task force reimburses the police departments for their officers'
time in conducting drug investigations, which are often
time-consuming. Rosini said task force members are deputized as
special county detectives who have countywide jurisdiction.

The task force provides for utilization of more manpower, money and
time to conduct widespread investigations that would be impossible if
municipal police departments had to act on their own, Rosini said.

"Drug investigations involve dangerous work, and we are constantly
providing officers with updated training to make sure they are
prepared for anything because drug users and suppliers are becoming
more creative," the D.A. said. "Narcotics is a very competitive business."

Four 'killer' drugs

Rosini said heroin, crack cocaine, cocaine and OxyContin are the four
"killer" drugs that have become prevalent in the region, with no
particular community standing out.

"The entire central Pennsylvania region has a problem with narcotics.
Certain areas are hit harder, but every part of the county has some
type of drug problem," Rosini said.

He said most of the heroin is coming into the county from
Philadelphia, Reading and New York City.

He said other common drugs circulating in the region include marijuana
and Ecstasy, but the current preference is crack cocaine, heroin and

Although the drug problem in Northumberland and surrounding counties
is not as serious as in metropolitan areas, the fact is criminal cases
in Northumberland County alone have tripled in 20 years, with most of
the increase coming from drug cases, Rosini said. He said there has
been an increase in the use of more dangerous drugs during that time.

When Rosini became an assistant district attorney in the 1980s, most
drug arrests involved marijuana. Today, there is an abundance of
heroin (in a very pure form) and crack cocaine. Because drug users
commit other types of crimes to support their drug habit, the drug
problem has a highly negative impact on the area's quality of life, he

Not just drugs

Since 2000, veteran Coal Township Police Chief Richard Higgins said
officers in his department have investigated 107 drug-related offenses
and made 42 arrests. He said some of the arrests have involved
employees at local medical facilities being charged with stealing
drugs to support their own drug habit, which causes him great concern.

Another alarming fact for Higgins is that more drug arrests are
occurring at local high schools. He commended teachers and
administrators for doing a better job of educating teens about the
dangers of drugs, but said drugs are now a lot more accessible in
schools than they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Although Higgins regards drug use in Coal Township and surrounding
communities as a serious problem, he is more alarmed at the increasing
rate of other crimes, such as driving under the influence of alcohol,
thefts and burglaries.

"The number of DUI arrests we've made since 2000 is about 10 times
more than the number of drug arrests," Higgins explained. "During that
same period of time, there have been 850 thefts and burglaries and
we've investigated and solved two murders."

Higgins, in explaining his low drug arrest numbers compared to
neighboring communities of similar size (one-tenth that of Shamokin,
for example), said he supports the efforts of Rosini and the drug task
force officers, but said there is a lot of manpower spent on drug
investigations and that represents only one aspect of police work. His
department is a member of the task force, as all county departments
are, but it is regarded as much less active than other larger

"As police chief of this department, I try to balance the resources we
have and provide service where it is most needed," he explained. "We
have to balance the scales in terms of manpower spent on investigating
crimes when it comes to serving the taxpayers of Coal Township.

Drugs are just one of the many problems that we face. Alcohol is
killing kids, and I think represents more of a serious problem in our
area than drugs. We have more dead people on the roads from DUIs than

Task force 'vital'

Nichols said his department is actively involved with the
Northumberland-Montour Drug Task Force.

According to statistics obtained from the office of District Justice
John Gembic III, Shamokin police have made a total of 426 drug-related
arrests since 2000, which include charges filed by city officers in
connection with drug task force investigations.

Nichols commended his officers for their assistance in the major drug
bust on Oct. 8 and a grand jury investigation that led to the
indictment of seven defendants involved in a drug ring that stretches
from Northumberland County, and, more specifically, Coal Township, to
the West Coast.

A Coal Township man, who was among the seven people indicted in the
drug ring, is reportedly one of the largest suppliers of cocaine and
other illegal drugs in the area.

900 in Sunbury

Steve Brown, administrative assistant at Sunbury Police Department,
reported officers have made more than 900 drug arrests since 2000,
including 161 in 2000; 135 in 2001; 255 in 2002; 260 in 2003; and 137
as of September of this year.

"We have a serious drug issue, and our officers are determined to do
whatever we can to combat the drug problems with the reduced manpower
we have available," Police Chief Ricky Longenberger said.

Longenberger said his department works well with the drug task force
and has participated in many drug busts over the past five years. He
said the amount of drugs has dramatically increased over the past 10
years. He agreed with the assessment that drug use has changed from
marijuana to more crack cocaine and heroin.

He said drug users have easier access to narcotics in bigger cities
like Reading and Philadelphia. "They can get basically whatever they
want," he said.

Longenberger said task force members have been successful in
corralling more mid-level dealers in recent years.

Must continue

Mount Carmel Chief of Police Brian Shurock reported 89 people,
including 73 adults and 16 juveniles, were arrested on drug charges in
the borough between January 2000 and Oct. 18, 2004, an average of 1.5
arrests per month.

"In my opinion, I feel there is no way that law enforcement will stop
the influx of illegal narcotics into our country and communities,"
Shurock said. "We can only make our best efforts to control it. It
seems that the problem will always exist, and that is why we need to
continue to dedicate manpower to combat the problem and support
Northumberland and Montour counties' efforts in funding the task force."

Shurock said most departments in Northumberland County do not have
enough manpower to dedicate officers 100 percent of the time to
investigate drug-related crimes. He said it is extremely important
that the task force continue to operate so police departments can pull
together their resources and manpower so budgets will not be strained
and a sufficient amount of officers can respond to other police needs.

Shurock said drug dealing and use always breed other crimes, including
thefts, assaults, burglaries, vandalism and accidents.

He said, "In my police career thus far, I have seen numerous young men
and women and adults throw their lives away because of the their
tremendous addiction to drugs.

"It is amazing to see that after so many people are arrested at one
time for drug-related offenses such as the countywide roundup on Oct.
8, there is always another person out there who feels they are smarter
than the last one and is willing to take the risk of being caught."

Shurock added, "We have very qualified and well-trained drug
investigators in the area who are determined to locate the next one in
line, and I firmly believe that the smallest to the largest drug
dealer needs to be held accountable, and that penalties need to be
firm and consistent."

State police at Stonington, who are not official members of the task
force but provide assistance to agents at times, have arrested 16
people on drug-related offenses since 2000, according to records kept
at Gembic's office.

Magistrate's thoughts

Gembic commended the work of Rosini and the drug task force and
believes the task force is a vital tool in stemming the rising tide of
drug abuse and dependency among youth in the area.

"Increased drug use has been responsible for the increase in property
and theft offenses that come before me as a district justice," Gembic
said. "In reviewing the number of drug arrests, it appears that
Shamokin police have mounted a vigorous offense to this problem."

The much lower number of arrests in neighboring Coal Township concerns

"As a resident of Coal Township, a former township commissioner, a
parent of four young children and a son of two elderly parents who
reside in Coal Township, I urge township commissioners to meet with
members of the Coal Township Police Department to evaluate the impact
of drugs in Coal Township," he said. "They need to formulate and
implement a plan to combat this serious threat to our children,
parents and all who are at risk for victimization by this crime."

Not just police

Rosini said the task force and law enforcement agencies are doing what
they can to put local drug dealers behind bars, but stressed the
importance of community involvement in solving the problem. He said
it's imperative for parents, churches, schools and organizations to
launch a larger effort to deter young people from using drugs.

"We can prevent our communities from deteriorating by embarking on a
community-wide effort in making younger people more aware of the
dangers of drugs," Rosini said.
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