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Washington County narcotic trade is growing

April 21, 1997

By BRENDAN KIRBY

Staff Writer

Pick any measure of drug activity in Washington County and the arrow points straight up.

Whether the category is arrests, court cases or amount of drugs seized, law enforcement officials have seen dramatic increases over the last five years.

While the causes for the jump are complex and varied, the result is simple: The manpower and budgets of numerous agencies have been stretched close to the breaking point. County officials are quickly running out of court dates to prosecute offenders and jail space to house them.

"All agencies are overworked and under-loved," said Sgt. Charles Summers, who commands the county's Narcotics Task Force.

Out-of-town deluge

The signals are unmistakable. But why are police officers so much busier?

The answer, according to officials, rests with the drug trade. The Hub City has become a major drug hub, attracting experienced - and increasingly violent - dealers from far away places like New York and Florida.

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Summers said a drug raid last November underscored the trend. He said the task force raided a hotel room on Dual Highway and arrested nine out-of-town dealers. Agents seized large quantities of cocaine, marijuana and heroin, Summers said.

Along with those items, he added, officials also found a letter from one drug dealer to another.

Summers sat stunned as he read in detail why Hagerstown is a great place to sell drugs, how to do it without getting caught and how much money could be made.

"In dope-dealer vernacular, it was: `Hey, buddy, this is how you deal drugs in Hagerstown,'" he said. "He outlined the whole game plan. It was a little dope dealer's guide to dealing drugs in Hagerstown."

As word has spread, Summers said drug dealers have poured into Hagerstown looking to cash in on its burgeoning market.

The numbers

In 1987, the first full year of the Narcotics Task Force, agents handled 81 cases, Summer said. By last year, the number was 196 - a 142 percent increase. And this year, Summers said agents are on a pace to handle 272 cases.

In addition, uniformed officers have averaged more than 200 arrests a year since 1990, according to Hagerstown Police Department computer specialist Wayne Dunkin. Those are arrests made by officers who are responsible for enforcing all crime while on routine patrol.

NTF agents can also see the difference in the amount of drugs they seize, Summers said. Last year, they impounded more than $100,000 worth of drugs, mostly crack and marijuana. This year, Summers said NTF agents are on a pace well ahead of that.

Doing more with less

Despite the increase in drug activity, the task force is battling the problem with the same resources it had when it began.

Actually, less. When the NTF formed in 1986, it had three officers from the Hagerstown Police Department, two from the Washington County Sheriff's Department and a commitment of two from the Maryland State Police.

But state police officials, after years of gradual withdrawal, announced in January they were pulling out of the task force altogether. Instead, they said they would fight drugs by participating in the federal Drug Enforcement Administration Tri-State Task Force.

Along with the manpower, state officials also took financial resources.

Currently, the task force's budget is $179,873 - about the same as it was in fiscal year 1995.

The budget is shared by the city police and sheriff's department. That money includes the salaries of two secretaries, an assistant state's attorney, operating expenses and some capital costs. The salaries of the officers are not included.

Summers said he is requesting his budget be increased to $208,930, in part to compensate for the cost of items from "copy paper to toilet paper" that the state police used to pick up.

Court strain

But increasing the task force's budget will do no good unless there are budget increases to allow for more prosecutors and more jail space, Summers said.

"It's almost got to be a package deal," he said.

As it is, Washington County Assistant State's Attorney Andrew Kramer said he is barely keeping his head above water. Kramer, who works out of the NTF office and handles all of the county's felony drug prosecutions, said his caseload has more than doubled since he started in October 1993.

With only two days a month devoted to drug cases in Washington County Circuit Court, he said the county is nearing its breaking point.

Judge Frederick C. Wright III has added an additional day each month from July to December to help alleviate the problem. Kramer said having an additional judge - Gov. Parris Glendening last week appointed W. Kennedy Boone III to fill the Circuit Court vacancy - also will help.

Still, as cases increase, Kramer said the pressure will grow to resolve them quickly. Since defendants must have a court date within 180 days, he said it is difficult to fit them all in.

That means not every case can go to trial. Others must be plea-bargained.

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