For the first time, Baltimore police have begun investigating overdoses in an effort to trace drugs back to dealers, joining a wave of Maryland law enforcement agencies showing up at 911 calls previously left to medics.
A task force of five detectives will operate out of the homicide unit, responding when possible to fatal and nonfatal overdoses. More than 1,000 patrol officers also are being trained to respond to overdose scenes by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
"I think everyone would agree that we can't keep up this rate of overdoses," Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said in an interview. "We're going to build some cases hopefully that will result in some criminal charges against people putting this poison out on the street."
The effort has been in the works for more than a year in partnership with the Baltimore state's attorney's office and with guidance from local DEA agents, who have been working with smaller agencies statewide to collect and share information about drug dealing resulting in overdoses.
"We want it known that we're going to go after and look to prosecute those individuals we can tie to overdoses," said Don Hibbert, the special agent in charge of the DEA's Baltimore field office.
Authorities, however, face challenges in tackling a worsening epidemic of overdoses.
The new squad of city investigators will face hundreds of cases a year. In Harford County, the sheriff's office began sending a narcotics detective to every overdose scene two years ago but since has scaled back due to a spiking number of calls.
"We can't keep up," said Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler.
Prosecutors across the state, meanwhile, say they lack the tools to charge in such cases. In the past legislative session, Gov. Larry Hogan proposed a bill allowing prosecutors to charge a dealer in the death of an overdose victim, a law that would have carried a 30-year maximum sentence. But the bill was revised, instead adding 10 years of prison time for dealers convicted of supplying fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid often mixed with heroin that has contributed to the increase in fatal overdoses.
Baltimore Assistant State's Attorney Gerald Collins, who is chief of the major investigations unit, said he believes there's a "wide range" of ways his office can bring cases related to the police investigations. But he said charging a dealer with a customer's death "can be very challenging."
In Baltimore, police hope the new investigative efforts can quickly remove from the street a dealer circulating a "bad batch" causing a rash of overdoses.
"We might be able to connect that quicker, that we need to focus on this person because he's killing people," said police spokesman T.J. Smith.
Others warn of unintended consequences from increased police intervention in drug overdoses.
Rachel Bergstein, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, studied the implementation of Maryland's 2015 "Good Samaritan" law for the Baltimore Health Department, and found that many overdose bystanders refrained from or delayed calling 911 due to fear of arrest. The law protects people experiencing an overdose or assisting someone who is overdosing from arrest.
The Drug Policy Alliance also said treating overdoses as homicides will not curb overdoses. Instead, the alliance said, such enforcement often targets other users who sell drugs to support their habit, chipping away at the supply when the demand remains rampant.
"Thirty years of drug criminalization has overflowed our prisons and devastated our black and brown communities, but has reduced neither the drug trade nor consumption," Bergstein told legislators during testimony during the General Assembly session against the bill that targeted the drug dealers. "Addiction and overdose rates are only climbing higher."
Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen said her office has been "working on the implementation so that it best assists with the objectives of the Police Department while also ensuring that it moves forward our public health goal of saving lives and encouraging people to seek treatment."
Neill Franklin, executive director of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said the new initiative was "unwise" and destined to fail.
"It's going to create more problems, as it relates to dealing with this issue of getting people into treatment, removing the stigma," Franklin said. "It's an emotional response, not one based on science, on things proven to work."
The increased efforts to prosecute dealers come at a time when the state, through the Justice Reinvestment Act, has been trying to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug offenses and steer users toward treatment instead of incarceration.
Officials stress that they want to go after dealers, not users, and say they've learned lessons from past efforts to crack down on drugs.
"While treatment and prevention are extraordinarily important, we can't stem the flow of these increased opioid deaths without also taking a good hard look at enforcement," Christopher Shank, Hogan's deputy chief of staff, said in Annapolis earlier this year.
Anne Arundel County police have been sending two officers and a supervisor to every scene of a confirmed or suspected overdose. Officers hand out information on resources for drug addicts but also try to trace the drugs.
"If the person is coherent, we try to encourage cooperation, try to identify where and from whom the victim obtained the narcotic," said police spokesman Marc Limansky.
When an overdose is fatal, police establish a crime scene: They set up a perimeter, take photographs, collect fingerprints — "whatever we can get to ultimately lead us" to the supplier, Limansky said.
With overdoses spiking around the state, the DEA's Hibbert said, Baltimore continues to be a hub of activity. Investigations have traced overdoses in outlying jurisdictions to drugs sold in the city.
There are few examples of local prosecutors being able to charge dealers with selling drugs that resulted in overdoses. Prosecutors say such cases are complex, with problems including being able to show a dealer knew the risks or knew what cocktail of drugs they were selling.
Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Wes Adams said proving an overdose is a homicide is a "very difficult task," in part because the drugs are willingly ingested, with overdose an accepted risk.
"If it was easy, I can promise you all 23 state's attorneys would be knocking down cases as quick as we could," he said.
In Harford, investigators recently promoted an investigation into overdoses that helped identify a major drug trafficking organization operating out of northeastern Baltimore County. Working together, local and federal authorities say they linked 15 fatal and 48 nonfatal overdoses to the organization.
Two dealers went on to be charged in federal court in the deaths of two customers. One of them, Lamar Kaintuck of Baltimore, was charged with deaths in Bel Air and Calvert County.
Investigators used phone and Facebook messages to connect Kaintuck to the 2015 death of Calvert County resident Jordan Roche, who had returned from a heroin recovery house in North Carolina when he was found dead from a fatal injection of heroin, court records show. Kaintuck pleaded guilty to one count of distribution of heroin, and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
Harford investigators looking into overdoses also began developing a case against a Baltimore man named Antonio Shropshire, which led to his indictment along with several others, including Baltimore police Officer Momodu Gondo. It was that investigation that led to charges against Gondo and six other police officers on racketeering conspiracy charges in February. Shropshire and Gondo have pleaded not guilty.
Harford County Sheriff's Capt. Lee Dunbar said investigators can seek federal charges in cases where drug distribution leads to someone's death, and their investigations have led to five such cases.
"On the state side, we can charge reckless endangerment or manslaughter, but it's an uphill battle to do it," Dunbar said. "I can count on one hand how many times it's been successful."
In Queen Anne's County, when a 27-year-old woman died from an overdose at a Subway sandwich shop last fall, police there used information from her phone to trace the drugs to a 20-year-old woman and her 58-year-old dealer. Both were charged with manslaughter and drug counts.
The woman ultimately pleaded guilty to drug possession and received a sentence of four years, with all but 40 days suspended, while the dealer pleaded guilty to a drug distribution charge and received 16 years.
Years earlier, authorities in Queen Anne's likely would not have attempted to trace the drugs, said Deputy State's Attorney Christine Rickard.
"I think a lot of jurisdictions are realizing, there has to be a higher price for dealing a death sentence to people who are addicts," said Rickard.