Heroin Epidemic

Heroin epidemic presents new challenges to law enforcement in Manatee

Second in a series

MANATEE -- It didn't take long for law enforcement to realize they had a new drug epidemic on their hands as they neared the end of 2014.

Overdose death calls were quickly on the rise.

Arriving at scenes to find drug users already dead was becoming all too routine.

But with the crackdown on pill mills, there was a new culprit responsible: heroin.

"We've seen a large increase in overdose deaths. In a lot of those cases, we haven't received back toxicology from the medical examiner's office, but based on the circumstances we believe that these are deaths related to the ingestion of heroin," said Manatee County Sheriff's Office Lt. Darin Bankert.

The numbers emphasize the challenge for law enforcement:

In 2013, the Florida Medical Examiner's Commission Drug Report found 19 deaths involving drugs to include in heroin.

In 2014, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office suspected a drug overdose in 80 deaths. Of those, heroin is suspected or confirmed present in at least 19 cases. As of the end of May, the sheriff's office suspect a drug overdose is responsible for 30 deaths in 2015. Of those, heroin is suspected or confirmed present in at least 15 cases.

The Bradenton Police Department investigated 11 overdose deaths suspected or confirmed to be heroin related in 2014. As of the end of May, the department has seen eight overdose deaths believed to be

involving heroin.

The Palmetto Police Department investigated one overdose death in 2014 that involved heroin. As of the end of May, Palmetto has seen one heroin related overdose death.

The scene when detectives arrive is often a familiar one: drug paraphernalia, needles and a brown powder.

On its own, heroin is deadly, law enforcement and medical officials all agree on this.

But in what many investigators believe could be an attempt to increase the supply and maximize profits, it isn't just heroin Manatee County drug users are shooting up.

"We started looking at what was in the heroin and what was being ingested," Bankert said. "We found that the heroin was being cut with a drug called fentanyl, which is a synthetic opiate."

Already deadly, with the addition of a drug used to provide patients who are in extreme pain comfort, often with terminal cancer, using heroin became that much more lethal.

"Fentanyl alone is about 80 times more powerful than morphine," Bankert said. "But generally, it's the presence of fentanyl and it's not necessarily the mixture of fentanyl and heroin, which, in itself, can cause death."

Large amounts of fentanyl can result in death, since it can cause someone to stop breathing.

Soon it became clear that these heroin deaths needed to be monitored more closely.

One of the many challenges faced by law enforcement is that they have to wait for results from the medical examiner's office to confirm whether a death was the result of an overdose and what drug or drugs were present in the person's system at the time.

Harrowing scenes

Reports from sheriff's office reveal many of the common scenarios being witnessed by first responders.

Some, such as William Cone, 35, had a history of heroin use and were found dead in their homes. On Feb. 22, Cone was found dead in the bathroom of his Myakka City home with a syringe and aluminum can nearby.

Others, such as Chase Bowman, 27, were also regular users but were found dead in pubic places. On Feb. 24, Bowman overdosed in the restroom at Walmart, 2911 53rd Ave. E. in Bradenton.

Many, like Kristen Robinson, still had the needle in their arms when they were found overdosed. On Jan. 6, Robinson's brother got a call from one of her two children after she had injected herself with heroin. When he arrived, it was too late, and he removed the needle from her arm in effort to spare her children from seeing it.

Now, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and other local police departments are working together and with the medical examiner's office as they track overdose deaths. Investigators began communicating with the medical examiner's in reference to heroin as soon as they started to see a spike in overdoses, according to Bankert.

"They are the ones that can tell us what these people are dying from," he said. "We're telling them we're seeing this, let us know when you find it so we can track it."

Seeking the sources

Trying to determine where the heroin is coming from is one of the biggest challenges and focuses in stopping the epidemic, Bankert says. While a great deal of heroin is brought in from Mexico, Bankert believes, detectives are working to find the local sources.

"We are able to analyze heroin when we seize it, so we can fairly quickly tell if there are similarities," Bankert said. "Our narcotics unit can identify where it came from based on who they got it from."

If they see a common denominator is found in the heroin that is analyzed, then detectives can target that source, he says.

"I think one of the main things we did was get it out to the media that we have this heroin that's killing people," Bankert said. "I think that had a huge effect."

Awareness has also been key, Bradenton Police Sgt. Shannon Seymour agrees.

"The biggest focus is always going to be preserve life. Yes, we want to eliminate the source, we don't want drugs on the street," said Seymour, a narcotics unit supervisor.

There are many myths about heroin on the streets, he cautions. One is users' false sense of confidence in the product they are getting.

"I've had people look at me in the face and say, 'Sarge. I know I am not going to die from this cause it's brown'," Seymour said. "No, you have no idea in what's in it."

One of the biggest ways the community can help, is spreading awareness in an effort to debunk many of the commons myths and know the symptoms of what an overdose look like.

"Narcotics reaches out and touches every walk of life, and that's the problem with it. Everybody knows somebody in their life who at some point or another had a drug problem," Seymour said.

'The writing on the wall'

With the crackdown on the pill mill epidemic in recent years, there were fears among law enforcement that many of these addicts would make the switch to a drug providing similar effects. Many feared heroin would make a comeback.

In 2014, the Bradenton Police Department slowly started to see an increase of heroin-related cases. There were only two overdose deaths in 2013 in the city of Bradenton, but in 2014 overdose deaths reached 13.

"It was pretty clear to see that this was a problem, and to be honest the writing was on sort of the writing on the wall, pill mills started getting regulated," Seymour said.

The prescription pill epidemic in Florida reached its height in 2010. Legislation passed in June 2011 helped to shut down a vast majority of the pill mills statewide.

"In essence, you had a bunch of people addicted to opiates and then you can't get that source anymore," Seymour said.

Seymour added that most recently a 30-gram Oxycodone pill was going for more than $30 on the street. At the height of the pill epidemic, he said he knew people that were going through seven or eight Oxycodone pills a day.

Users who were addicted still needed that fix.

"So that was kind of the writing of the wall, people switched to heroin," Seymour said. "It was definitely a concern because we knew that pills would be regulated and get that under control and we knew this was a problem that could show up."

Heroin hits all areas

Law enforcement agencies within Manatee County routinely work together, sharing intelligence or at times jointly working on investigations. Palmetto Police Chief Scott Tyler was closely monitoring the situation as his local counterparts were in the midst of a growing epidemic.

"We weren't seeing the ODs and heroin-related calls in Palmetto really until the first of the year," Tyler said. "And then we sort of exploded for a month or two."

From Jan. 1 through the end of May, Palmetto saw 13 reports of overdose cases or suspected overdoses, according to statistics compiled by the department crime analyst.

The need to more closely monitor heroin, as many other departments had already begun to do, became clear. Officers, however, are often just called to the scene of a possible overdose to assist, according to Tyler, making it difficult to track without a report.

Now when officers respond to assist on a medical call that looks like it could be an overdose case, they have to write a cover report in order the keep better track of overdoses, he said. The department then tries to follow up in order to determine what the drug causing the overdose was, but it's impossible in cases where the person survives and is taken to the hospital.

Long-term solution

Many argue that the War on Drugs has been a failure, but with drugs continuing to plague American communities and trends always changing, law enforcement is left with the difficult task of combating its presence.

How to stop the prevalent manufacturing, sale and use of drugs is a contentious debate nationwide, and departments everywhere are always looking for new or better tactics.

Some say the ideal solution really needs to start with children of the community.

"I think traditionally law enforcement goes after the source, and although I think that is very important we need to continue, we need to get better at making sure our kids don't become addicts," Tyler said.

To prevent children from growing up to become addicts, Tyler believes that it's critical to identify why they become involved with illegal drugs to begin with.

"We need to identify the kids in our community who are at risk," Tyler said. "We need to somehow prevent future generations from becoming addicts. I would say that's where we need to focus our attention."

Seymour agrees, and believes a lot of the work needs to be done at home.

"You have to talk to your kids, and you have to talk to your kids before you think they are old enough to talk to them," Seymour said. "When you think, 'Oh not yet,' that's probably the best time. Parents are the biggest influence on kids."

Bankert thinks that an emphasis on treatment is what is needed in order to combat the problem. Treatment needs to happen before and after police are forced to intervene, with the judicial system playing a big role in that.

"I think awareness is a big part of it, and I think that in conjunction with some intervention that we do as law enforcement -- those are probably the two biggest factors that will affect the death rate from overdoses," Bankert said.

Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.

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