MANATEE -- At least six people have died in Bradenton in 2014 because of heroin overdoses, according to the Bradenton Police Department.
In a release issued Thursday, police said they're investigating a notable increase of heroin-related overdose calls for service.
"In 2014, the Bradenton Police Department has responded to an average of one heroin overdose per week," the release said.
Police said the increase in heroin use is likely because of legislation, public awareness and law enforcement cracking down on "pill mill" pain clinics.
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The report is part of a larger trend within Manatee County.
Just last month, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office was investigating what was described as a significant number of deaths related to suspected accidental drug overdoses. Since Jan. 1, the sheriff's office has investigated 35 suspected overdose deaths.
"There's a lag time because you have to wait on autopsies at the Medical Examiner's Office to determine what the cause of death is. We put suspected overdoses -- not all heroin, though," said sheriff's office spokesman Dave Bristow. "We're having heroin mixed with other drugs."
Bristow said it's hard to say when the issue surrounding heroin has been worse in Manatee County.
"When they started cracking down on the pill mills, people started having a harder time getting ahold of prescription pills and we saw a little spike (then)," Bristow said. "That continues."
In its release, Bradenton police listed common signs to look for that someone is using heroin, including shortness of breath, dry mouth, small pupils, sudden changes in behavior or actions and disorientation.
"Some of definitive physical signs of heroin abuse are
weight loss, runny nose (not explained by other illnesses), needle marks ('track') visible on arms, infections or abscesses at injection sites, cuts, and bruises or scabs caused from skin picking," the release said.
The 12th Judicial Medical Examiner's Office, which covers Manatee, Sarasota and Desoto counties, said it has seen an increase in deaths where alprazolam, diazepam, heroin, hydrocodone, morphine and prescription drugs were a factor.
Dr. Jessica Crosby, director of Manatee Glens addictions center, told the Herald in November the center is seeing at least a 35 percent increase in heroin usage.
"Heroin is still cheaper than (other) opiates," Crosby said at the time. "The crackdown on the opiates is still causing people to turn to heroin, and heroin is stronger and less controlled so we are seeing more overdoses."
Bristow said many who are arrested for heroin possession know where they can get help.
"Unfortunately, they don't seek it. It's pretty easy to find where you can get help," he said, mentioning Manatee Glens as an example. "I've had families say that the best place for them is jail because they don't have access to drugs when they're in jail."
According to Palmetto Police Deputy Chief Scott Tyler, his department has seen one heroin overdose so far this year.
"We had one where we know it was heroin, but the person didn't die. They were very sick and involved in a crash while under the influence -- but they recovered," he said.
Tyler said the department also responded to a suspicious death involving an overdose, but the lab results haven't been returned. At first, arresting officers thought it might be heroin but they no longer believe so.
According to Tyler, it's difficult to estimate the prevalence of heroin use in Palmetto.
"Heroin is definitely more prolific than it used to be, and I think certainly that's backed up by the other agencies in the county that have been working these overdose deaths," he said.
There was a time, Tyler said, when officers didn't see much heroin. It didn't seem to be the drug of choice in the city and arrests in connection to heroin use were few and far between.
"Now it's far more common," Tyler said.
Marijuana reigns over other drugs as far as arrests are concerned and, according to the deputy chief, cocaine is still prevalent.
"Heroin is more en vogue than it used to be," Tyler said.
On Anna Maria Island, Holmes Beach Police Chief William Tokajer said there haven't been any heroin overdoses in the city this year.
"We do not recall that we've had any on the island," he said. "I know there's been an uptick in town -- in Manatee County."
The highest number of drug-related arrests in Holmes Beach stem from marijuana possession.
"I know we have had a few arrests this year for heroin, but it's not something that is growing here," Tokajer said, "but nationwide, it does appear to be growing."
Those with a heroin addiction or those who know anyone struggling with it are encouraged by Bradenton police to seek professional assistance. Organizations in the area of Manatee County that can assist in drug rehabilitation are Manatee Glens at 941-782-4100; First Step of Sarasota Inc. at 941-366-5333; and Operation Par Inc. at 941-753-0877.
Anyone with information on the sale of narcotics is encouraged to call any of the following: Bradenton Police Department's Detective Sergeant Shannon Seymour at 941-932-9300, Ext. 348, or to remain anonymous and be eligible for a cash reward of up to $1,000, call Crime Stoppers at 1-866-634-8477 (TIPS) or send an anonymous E-Tip through at manateecrimestoppers.com.
-- Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, contributed to this report.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.