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The fight against the drug trade: Latest word from the front lines

August 06, 1999

If you really want to know how the war is going, ask the folks in the trenches. And so to find out how the war on illegal drugs is going in Washington County, this week I talked to Sgt. Bob Leatherman, director of the county's narcotics task force.

"I hate the cliche 'war on drugs.' At least in war there are rules, rules of engagement that have been agreed to," Leatherman said.

To hear this tall, 10-year task force veteran tell it, in this war, only one side has to obey any rules. Couple that with a drug - crack cocaine - that's so addictive that users often get hooked after using it just one time and the job can seem insurmountable.

The task force was set up in 1986 and now has nine officers, five from the Hagerstown Police Department and four sheriff's deputies. In addition, they work with three agents of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, which has deputized seven task force officers.

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Working with the DEA, the task force shut down a major drug ring in January when more than 60 officers raided homes across the Tri-state area, arresting about 20 people and seizing six weapons, five cars and $100,000 worth of marijuana and cocaine.

But although it was, in the words of Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones, "one of the largest drug seizures in Washington County," it hasn't reduced the growing number of drug cases the task force sees every year.

Most of those cases involve crack cocaine and originate in open-air drug markets, Leatherman said. The dealers aren't as open as they were two years ago, he said, when the task force and Hagerstown's Street Crimes Unit pushed hard to knock it out of the state and federally subsidized housing projects.

"It got to the point where we had to work a little harder because they weren't so blatant about it," he said.

Are the majority of those involved in the drug trade local people or out-of-towners?

"The majority of the source of the drugs are individuals from Florida and New York, Leatherman said, adding that one Florida man he arrested said that drug dealers down south refer to Hagerstown as "SweetHeaven."

Why is that?

"He said that the crack cocaine you buy in Florida for $100 you can sell for $1,000 here. And he also said it's easy to take advantage of the girls up here," he said.

The fellow told Leatherman that local women, often single mothers, will take these guys in. Soon, the guy said, the dealers are helping out with the rent, buying the kids toys "and before too long, they've taken up residence here."

What can the average person do to help the task force?

"Call in. We try to address all the calls coming in. There are times we just can't get out to address a case, but information called in is kept and added to the file," Leatherman said.

That way, over time, the task force can build a case, like someone assembling a jigsaw puzzle one piece at a time.

Get as much information as possible prior to making the call. If you suspect drug activity going on in an apartment building in your neighborhood, try to describe which apartment is involved and describe the suspects.

"The more detailed information we can have, the better it is," he said.

Major felonies dropped by 7.7 percent in Hagerstown during 1998, and we often hear that drug abuse and crime are linked. Are drug users still committing crimes to fund their habits?

"It's well-documented that drugs are precipitating other crimes," Leatherman said, but added that sometimes people run through all their private funds to keep up with their habit.

Leatherman described an addict who'd been a top salesperson for a local firm, with a six-figure salary, the big house and everything else who decided to try crack just once.

"Now he's living in a two-room apartment with a coach and a coffee table," Leatherman said.

Are there any hopeful signs out there?

"We're a little shy of hopeful signs now. If everyone in the county would say, 'We're not going to buy any more drugs,' then that would be the end of it. Until they do, there'll always be people there to supply it to them," Leatherman said.

There are some success stories out there, Leatherman said, describing a man who he'd arrested previously who'd gotten clean, gotten married and started a family.

"They're out there. There's just not enough of them," he said.

What else could be done to curb the trade here?

"We have the resources in the office now to put another three or four officers on the task force. We definitely could keep them busy," Leatherman said.

One possibility would be to train new personnel in "interdiction," which involves catching those who are carrying drug supplies into town, usually on a bus. Some people wonder why officers can't just search everybody who gets off the bus, Leatherman said, but there are Constitutional provisions against being searched unless the officer has "reasonable cause" to believe the person is carrying drugs.

Is there anything else people should know about the task force?

"The quality of the people on the task force is something they should know about. They really care about what they do, because they work grueling hours and take time away from their families," Leatherman said.

"If you know someone who's on the task force, go up to them sometime and say, 'We appreciate what you're trying to do.' They're an outstanding group of officers," he said.

If you have information for the Narcotics Task Force, call (301) 791-3205.




Bob Maginnis is the Opinion page editor of the Herald-Mail newspapers

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