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Hagerstown's drug trade: Report from the front line

July 07, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

If you're looking for a drug dealer on the streets of Hagerstown, look quickly. Most of the peddlers coming here from New York state spend only enough time on the street to establish contacts. Then, using addicts' resources, they burrow into the local area in a way that makes it tougher for police to find them.

Tougher, but not impossible, according to Officer Todd Dunkle, a 10-year veteran of the Hagerstown Police Department's now assigned to the Street Crimes Unit.

Dunkle recently spoke to me about the drug trade here, and how it's changed in recent years.

"It's an uphill battle. We will never stop the drug trade, but we can hinder their efforts by targeting individuals or areas," he said.

But what police are up against is crack cocaine, a drug so powerful that one use is said to turn a person into an addict. It's that craving that can make the addict a near-slave to the drug dealer, Dunkle said.

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While marijuana is the most-abused drug in the U.S., Dunkle said that "you don't see people commiting additional crimes to support a marijuana habit."

Based on his experience, Dunkle said that cocaine dealers often travel here from New York by bus. When they arrive, they stay with friends or family members who are already here until they establish contact with an addict or two.

"If they can get one guy who's a vulnerable drug user, then that initial drug user will be (the dealer's) contact on the street," he said.

Then, Dunkle said, in exchange for their drug of choice, the addicts will do a variety of things, including lending the dealer their cars, renting them motel rooms or buying them cell phones with prepaid minutes - with no record of who's bought them.

To avoid detection, drug dealers may move from room to room in the same motel from week to week, Dunkle said.

Most of the drugs sold here come from New York, Dunkle said, adding that it's not unusual for a dealer to make two round trips a week to get new supplies. Given that the street price of crack cocaine is more than twice what it is in New York, from the dealer's point of view, it's worth it, Dunkle said.

The dealers are also rotating crews of juveniles in and out, so that even if the youngsters are nabbed, they spend little time in jail.

That's a gripe he has with the Department of Juvenile Justice, he said. The local DJJ officials are good folks, he said, but their hands are tied with policies that put young offenders back on the streets before he's finished with the paperwork on their arrests.

"I've gotten a kid with 20 or 30 pieces of crack in their pockets and I've been told to take him to his parents' home and drop him off on the stoop," he said.

Adult arrests are another story. Dunkle said an arrest for simple possession can provide him with a valuable contact. A drug user faced with going to jail or becoming an informant is often eager to cooperate, Dunkle said.

"I need someone to get me inside," he said.

Asked how the public can help, Dunkle said that staying alert is the key.

"Keep your eyes open. If your gut tells you it's drug deal, give us a call. We have a tip line citizens can call into - an Internet-based tip line," he said.

"Or they can contact me directly, or any one of the members of the Street Crimes Unit." he said.

"That tip may line up with information I already have. Citizens are our best resource because they're everywhere and I'm not," he said.

And if you haven't done so already, Dunkle advises citizens to develop a relationship with a police officer so that when information comes along, the officer can act as a conduit for it.

To hear Dunkle tell it, police need all the help citizens can give because the drug dealers have changed their stategies.

"They're not as flagrant as they were five or six years ago. They've learned how to circumvent our tactics," he said.

Not only that, Dunkle said, but Hagerstown is now seeing an influx of gang activity, including the Crips and the Bloods and a Salvadoran street gang called MS-13.

The first two are fairly loosely organized, Dunkle said, in that local units aren't linked to a larger organization. Units of MS-13, however, do have a hierarchy and are violent and very much anti-police, he said.

Asked if what seems like an endless stream of drug offenses ever discourages him, Dunkle said no.

"I look forward to coming to work every day," he said.

If you have a tip for the Street Crime Unit, call 301-739-8577, ext. 235, or e-mail tips to drugtip@hagerstownpd.org




Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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