David Pryor, branch director for the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club, talks about how youth members learned about the dangers of drugs during Harford County's inaugural Night of Conversation. (David Anderson)
To look at the numbers, the heroin problem in Harford County is getting worse, not better.
"We have been very progressive in our approach and very up front about it, letting the public know about what's going on," Sheriff's Office Capt. Lee Dunbar, head of the Harford County Task Force, said. "Our approach is, we're not going to ignore the problem. We have people dying and we have an epidemic."
Despite the efforts of law enforcement and public health and local school officials, as well as many elected officials, fatal overdoses this year are on pace to be about double those from last year.
And, the sheer volume of them is forcing the county's lead law enforcement agency to shift some of its investigative priorities on drug incidents because of the costs involved.
As of Monday (Dec. 5), 19.7 percent of the 248 heroin overdoses in Harford this year have been fatal, compared with 13 percent of the 201 total overdoses in 2015 (49 people have died so far this year versus 27 in all of last year). Local police attribute the increase in the number of fatal overdoses to the rise in the use of the powerful opioid fentynal mixed with heroin.
Five people died of heroin overdoses in Harford County between last Wednesday and Sunday, and while that number may be staggering, local police say it could get to the point where there are multiple fatal overdoses in a period of hours. The drug carfentanil is expected to start showing up and causing more deaths.
"We're not going to claim any type of success until we can see those numbers going in the opposite direction," Dunbar said Monday.
Local law enforcement is going to continue its efforts to combat the scourge, he said.
"It's not futile, because we know from a law enforcement standpoint, we have to hit it head on. We want to target dealers, drug trafficking organizations. We want to put people in jail and take their assets," he said. "But we are frustrated we're not making the headway we want to make."
Police can and want to do a lot more, Dunbar said, but it takes money, which no agency has enough of, including the Sheriff's Office, a de facto county police force that handles the bulk of the drug crime investigations locally.
Dunbar and Harford Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler are urging lawmakers to provide more funding for deputies, so they attack the heroin/opioid problem from a law enforcement standpoint.
"We need more funding on the local level, more deputies to combat it on a law enforcement front," he said. "We produce a lot of data, but we don't have the manpower to follow up on a lot of it."
Gahler wants to propose a heroin intervention team, but needs funding for it.
The first of three Heroin Prevention & Awareness Briefings for Harford County residents takes place at Edgewood High School Wednesday night. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)
The sheriff plans to renew his request to County Executive Barry Glassman for funding for the unit in next year's budget. The money would be used to add deputies to the team, made up of narcotics investigators, according to Sheriff's Office spokesperson Cristie Kahler.
"Regrettably, the pace of overdoses occurring in the county has outpaced our abilities to properly follow-up and investigate all overdoses," Kahler wrote in an email Monday.
The Sheriff's Office, under Gahler, has been sending deputies to each overdose call reported to 911 to investigate how the victim obtained his or her drugs in an effort to focus resources on investigating and prosecuting dealers rather than users. But some of those efforts are slowing down, Kahler said.
"Last week, Sheriff Gahler had to back off of his initial policies, and make the difficult decision to not have deputies follow up on repeat overdoses where there was not the appearance of a potential loss of life," she explained. "This team would require the hiring of additional deputies to ensure no other services are interrupted to the citizens of Harford County."
While law enforcement has been working with the public schools, the county government health officials and community groups to educate people about the dangers of drug use, Dunbar stressed the Sheriff's Office's main focus is getting dealers off the street.
Because the epidemic isn't just local, it needs to be fought at higher levels, all the way up to the federal government and beyond, according to Dunbar.
The Sheriff's Office knows who the main suppliers are – China has 100,000 labs making fentynal and sending it to Mexico to mix with heroin before it makes its way to the United States, he said.
"We need to work with those governments because they know what's going on in their countries," he said.
Prosecuting drug cases is also difficult, Dunbar said.
The task force is targeting drug trafficking organizations that bring heroin into Harford, and they know the vast majority of them are in Baltimore City, he said.
"However, when we find that dealer who supplied the heroin that killed a victim in Harford County, we're having a hard time getting legislation at the state level that they have on the federal level to charge the dealer specifically with the death of another," he said. "The language exists federally, but not locally."
In a few rare cases in Maryland, police have been able to prosecute a dealer for directly killing a heroin user, Dunbar said, but that doesn't happen often.
Prosecuting the cases at any level is difficult, too, he said, not because it's a bad case, but because "they simply can't handle the workload."
"We have the evidence, we just can't get them charged federally. They don't have the prosecutors," he said.
The Sheriff's Office also has a new relationship with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency's Baltimore division, Dunbar said, with deputies credentialed to the DEA.
That means the several task force deputies who are credentialed can work their way up the chain in the investigation, Dunbar said, starting with a local dealer in Harford County who's getting his supply elsewhere.
"We can target those dealers elsewhere and work our way up. We can travel and coordinate with groups elsewhere," he said. "We are unique. Yes, we are being very progressive, but we realize the problem is not contained in our jurisdictional boundaries."
The Sheriff's Office is also working with legislators in Annapolis to help draft a proposal supporting legislation in the upcoming 2017 Maryland General Assembly session "to place more aggressive penalties on those dealers who have provided fatal doses of heroin and continue to feed this epidemic eating away at our community," according to Kahler.
Law enforcement, health care cooperation
Harford County's heroin data is expected to be more complete with the creation of a memorandum of understanding between the Sheriff's Office and the University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates Harford's two hospitals.
UCH will provide to law enforcement some information on people who visit a UCH facility in Harford County for a suspected "opioid-related" overdose. The data includes the person's gender, race, age, the community where they live, the drug suspected of causing the overdose and the date the person was treated, and it must be provided within 48 hours after the person is discharged, according to the MOU.
Gahler stressed that the health system will not provide specific information about an overdose victim, such as their name or their treatment, but law enforcement officials will be able to better analyze where overdoses are happening and who is being affected.
The Sheriff's Office met with Upper Chesapeake officials Friday to iron out the sharing process. The first round of data will be sent to the Sheriff's Office for review in the next two weeks, according to Kahler.
How young people get started on the road to addiction to opioids was a major theme of Thursday night's second of three heroin prevention and awareness briefings held at C. Milton Wright High School in Fountain Green.
"We are encouraged by the cooperation to get better heroin-related overdose data," she said. "Unfortunately, it seems as though our concerns are on point and the heroin epidemic clutching our community is worse than what our response numbers indicated."
The Sheriff's Office is hopeful the data collection on heroin overdoses from UMUC can coincide with the hiring of the agency's heroin coordinator, paid for with state funding awarded this year to fight the epidemic.
The coordinator, whose responsibilities will include reviewing and analyzing all heroin related data, has not been hired. The candidate has been selected, according Kahler, and is "undergoing the rigorous and through background process required for the position."
"Having that person in place, would have assisted in the identification of available data elements, the development of a mechanism for transfer of data and the advancement of professional relationships from the start," she said.