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Harford sheriff using overdose calls to go after heroin dealers

In an attempt to gather more immediate intelligence and evidence about illegal drug dealing, Harford County's sheriff has started sending narcotics detectives on all medical calls for heroin overdoses.

The new protocol took effect Jan.1 and applies to non-fatal and fatal calls. During the first 18 days of the month, investigators responded to 11 heroin overdose calls, two of which were fatal, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said Monday.

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"That's a pace I don't want to see continue," he added.

A call for a non-fatal overdose on Jan. 7 led to the arrest of two people on heroin distribution charges, Gahler said. On a call on Sunday, a deputy at the scene used the anti-opiate drug Narcan to save a life, he said.

Gahler said patrol deputies have always responded to calls for suspected illegal drug overdoses when the Sheriff's Office has been notified by 911 dispatchers, which has been routine.

The responding deputies in turn filed reports that Gahler said did feed through the chain of command. By the time information got to detectives, however, "valuable information and evidence could be lost."

Under the new protocol, narcotics investigators are notified for each heroin overdose call and respond promptly to the scene, Gahler explained.

"We want to have a prompt response to look for evidentiary and investigative material," he said. "It's a simple change."

Gahler said the Harford County Task Force will continue to handle the bulk of the narcotics investigations in the county. Though administered by the Sheriff's Office, the task force also has members from the Maryland State Police and the municipal police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace.

Gahler said the municipal departments and MSP are on board with the new protocol, which he also called "just the first step to eradicating heroin from our communities."

He also said having police officers respond to medical calls does not run afoul of medical privacy laws such as the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known by the acronym HIPAA.

"It's still a violation of criminal law to use heroin," Gahler said. "It's no difference than responding to a call for a shooting. A response is necessary and appropriate, and what we have done is to gear up to make it a more timely response."

Though Harford ranks seventh in population among the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City, the county ranked fourth in opiate-related deaths in 2013, Harford Office of Drug Control Policy manager Joseph Ryan said in January 2014. He also said heroin had replaced prescription painkillers as the county's number one problem drug.

During his inauguration speech in December, Harford County Executive Barry Glassman promised to attack the "scourge" of heroin abuse through the appointment of a joint task force with the Sheriff's Office and the State's Attorney's Office. Gahler said this initiative is still in the early discussion stage among those involved.

According to a statement issued by the Sheriff's Office on Friday, the investigation of the Jan. 7 non-fatal overdose in Bel Air led detectives to Michael Phillips II and Jessica Adams, both of the 3200 block of Sharon Road, in Jarrettsville.

On Jan. 14, at approximately 11:25 p.m., both Phillips and Adams were observed by Harford County Drug Task Force members allegedly participating in a suspected drug deal on Yorkshire Drive in Edgewood, the Sheriff's Office said.

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Phillips, 24, and Adams, 25, were subsequently charged with possession with the intent to distribute heroin from the Edgewood incident and with distribution of heroin in connection with the Jan. 7 non-fatal overdose in Bel Air, the Sheriff's Office said.

Both are being held without bail at the Harford County Detention Center, according to court records.

According to court records, Phillips pleaded guilty to possession of narcotics with intent to distribute in Harford Circuit Court on Nov. 10, 2014 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, with all but 18 months suspended, plus five years of supervised probation upon his release from prison.

Adams pleaded guilty to a similar charge on Nov. 19, 2014, according to court records, and was also sentenced to 20 years in prison, with all but 18 months suspended, plus five years of supervised probation, upon her release.

Both were out on bail and due to report to begin serving their sentences this week when they were arrested last week, according to the Sheriff's Office.

"I am proud of the dedication and hard work my deputies gave to this important case," Gahler said in Friday's statement.

Harford's heroin trade received considerable national publicity last summer in an episode of the National Geographic Channel's "Drugs Inc: The High Wire" series.

Though the episode, which focused primarily on Baltimore, generated considerable controversy for calling the city "the heroin capital of America," Harford law enforcement officials did not dispute that Harford had become a market for so-called commuter dealers moving out to the suburbs to sell heroin a greatly inflated prices. The final 15 minute segment of the episode, which covered Harford, was shot in August 2013.

Gahler said Adams was one of the dealers featured in the Drugs Inc. episode. The drug distribution charge for which both she and Phillips were convicted of last year grew out of the Harford County Task Force's work covered in the television show, according to the Sheriff's Office.

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