Harford records 200th fatal overdose since count started in 2015

Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler told the Harford County Council Monday afternoon that 200 people have died from opioid overdoses since the Sheriff's Office began keeping track in 2015.
Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler told the Harford County Council Monday afternoon that 200 people have died from opioid overdoses since the Sheriff's Office began keeping track in 2015. (MATT BUTTON / THE AEGIS file)

Harford County recorded a "sad milestone:" the 200th fatal heroin overdose since the Sheriff's Office started tracking them in 2015, the sheriff said early this week.

It's not all bad news, Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler told members of the Harford County Council and the Budget Advisory Board during a review Monday of his agency's proposed budget for fiscal year 2019.


Besides the continuing heroin and opioid epidemic, Gahler also spoke about school resource officers and the difficulty the Sheriff's Office is having in filling vacant positions.

While the number of fatal overdoses is up this year 12 percent over the same period in 2017, the number of non-fatal overdoses is down by 13.6 percent, Gahler said.


"That's the first positive in the first quarter of 2018 that we have seen in the numbers ... since I came into office," Gahler said.

As of Monday, Harford had recorded 136 overdoses, including 35 fatal overdoses, this year, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The agency continues to fight the epidemic plaguing Harford, with programs such as the HOPE House and the substance abuse unit at the Harford County Detention Center.

Two inmates and a former inmate at Harford County Detention Center were arrested earlier this year for allegedly smuggling drugs into the detention facility through the mail, according to the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.

Almost 1,500 people have toured the HOPE House, which gives adults a glimpse into what an addict's room might look like, and it has traveled to be shown to residents in Anne Arundel, Cecil and Baltimore counties.


"We're trying to raise awareness and spread the word," Gahler said.

Thirty-six people have participated in the substance abuse unit program at the jail. One of the inmates released has since overdosed, Gahler said .

"I'd like to say the other 35 are fine, but only time will tell," Gahler said. "We don't think it's a cure, but it's certainly something that's productive they can do during their incarceration and hope they come out a little more educated, and aware than when they came in, and more ready to fight the battle coming out."

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman has proposed $1.2 million in the FY2019 budget to hire seven additional deputies for the school resource officer program to be able to put a full-time deputy at every public middle school in Harford outside the municipalities.

A part-time sergeant position would become full-time to oversee two corporals instead of one and 14 school resource officers to form a true school resource unit, Gahler said.

The Sheriff's Office is working with Harford County Public Schools to find other ways to address safety in elementary schools, he said.

"A major element of the school resource program is the interaction between the maturing young adults and the police officers. We gain information thankfully, in so many cases, that is not related to school, but to crimes in the community," Gahler said. "That kind of interaction is not going to occur in elementary schools."

Councilman James McMahan lauded the Sheriff's Office and the county government for its SRO program.

"We in Harford County are so far ahead of the curve for what we do here, and what you're training and what the county executive had dedicated, people from other counties are asking how we've done that," McMahan said. "I say, through cooperation."


Like other law enforcement agencies, the Sheriff's Office is having a difficult time hiring to fill its vacancies, he said, thanks in part to an "undeserved black eye" on law enforcement.

As of Monday, the Sheriff's Office had eight law enforcement vacancies (not including the seven SRO positions), 13 correctional deputy vacancies and one court services vacancy (providing security at 220 S. Main St., the Harford County Courthouse and the Harford County Council building), he said.

"We continue to be challenged trying to recruit men and women, and it's not unique to Harford County," Gahler said.

Susan Iwunze Nwoga, 47, operates the independent Poplar Grove Pharmacy in Southwest Baltimore’s Franklintown Road neighborhood. Since 2013, Nwoga filled “patently fraudulent” customer prescriptions for drugs such as Oxycodone, alprazolam clonazepam and promethazine, according to the indictment.

In hiring for the SRO spots, a lateral move, the Sheriff's Office received 23 applications, when typically it receives 50 or more. In the last round of hiring for correctional deputies, the Sheriff's Office received 171 applications when it would normally see more than 300.

"It is concerning," he said. "We've seen a decline in our application pool; it's not as deep as it has been in the past."

Increased salaries should go a long way toward helping with hiring and making the Sheriff's Office more competitive, Gahler said, as the Sheriff's Office implements the second of a two-year plan to raise salaries.

"The most important thing coming into office nearly four years ago was trying to get the salary structure of the Harford County Sheriff's Office back on track," Gahler said. "There was a long span of frozen steps, stagnant pay and no increases over the years."

The increases in the proposed FY2019 budget "restores us to what is a competitive level" of salaries with other agencies.

"To remain competitive, we have to pay competitive," Gahler said.

Other programs

In the next fiscal year, Gahler hopes to expand the Sheriff's Office cadet program and implement an auxiliary deputy program.

Tyler Dailey, son of slain Harford Senior Deputy Patrick Dailey, who was killed in the line of duty Feb. 10, 2016, was the agency's first cadet, which Gahler admitted he created for selfish reasons.

Tyler Dailey was looking at the Baltimore County Police Department or Maryland State Police, which offer cadet programs, because Harford didn't.

This year, he hopes to have four cadets, who will take three to four months to hire, who will ultimately enter the sheriff's police academy when they are 20 ½ years old, he said.

More than 20 applications were received for the auxiliary deputy positions, who will be "an extra set of eyes, hands and ears" to help with various events. They will receive specific training and will be unarmed, he said.

'Worst case scenario'

Budget Advisory Board member Bob Tibbs asked Gahler if there is an evacuation plan in the county, referring to the windstorm in early March when both bridges were closed for extended periods and the Conowingo Dam was closed briefly.

"That was a total fiasco," Tibbs said.

Gahler said there is a plan, but that the storm was a "worst case scenario of everything coming true at one time."

"If it could go wrong that night, Mother Nature made sure it did," he said.

There's only so much planning an agency can do and even the best-laid plans need to be reviewed, he said.

"No matter how many plans you make, there is nowhere to send all those cars," Gahler said.

Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.