By GARY POPP
Members of the Clarksville Police Department say the town recently had the reputation as one the easiest places in the area for drug dealers to push their products.
The same officers are saying that is no longer the case.
For the first time in the department’s history, a Narcotics Division has been created to identify those bringing drugs into the town and build cases to put drug offenders behind bars.
While the new division is only a two-man operation consisting of Detective Cpl. Joel DeMoss and Detective Nate Walls, officers say an operating drug squad is long overdue.
“In Clarksville, honestly, it was embarrassing,” DeMoss said. “Other departments would come in our jurisdiction and make all the dope arrests — all the big arrests that we should have been doing, that we should have been investigating.”
The implementation of the Narcotics Division is part of the department’s restructuring, following the (hire/hiring) of Clarksville Police Chief Mark Palmer in January.
Only months after taking the reigns, Palmer had selected DeMoss and Walls to lead the department’s effort combating drug offenses in Clarksville.
Each of detectives has experience working as a uniform-patrol officer and both said they previously felt restricted under the previous administration when attempting to investigate drug cases.
“For years and years it was all just street officers. Working whatever they could off the street,” DeMoss said. “We never had the opportunity in the last several years of somebody to go to when we investigated drugs on the street to say, ‘Hey, this is what we have going on.’”
Without a Narcotics Division, a zealous patrol officer who initiated drug cases had few alternatives to have the investigations carried out by higher-ranking detectives.
The gap between street officers and narcotics detectives has been closed by the department’s new leaders including Palmer, Assistant Chief David Kirby and Chief of Detectives Darrell Rayborn.
Uniform officers can now turn to DeMoss and Walls with info they pick up on possible drug offenders while on patrol.
By Palmer providing DeMoss and Walls with unprecedented autonomy to focus on drug cases, the detectives now have the tools to aggressively go after drug offenders.
“It goes with the general department’s philosophy now of proactive policing as opposed to waiting for things to come,” DeMoss said. “If you are going to be a proactive department, you are going to have to work narcotics.”
DeMoss said in the past, when suspected drug activity was found by street officers, the officers would have to find time on their own patrol shifts to build a case.
The problem, DeMoss and Walls explained, was that street officers often lacked the time or resources to properly conduct surveillance and other functions to carry out the investigations.
“The general philosophy change and comrade atmosphere around here has totally changed in the uniform division as well, which has made it much better for us doing our job,” Walls said.
Through the Narcotics Division, Palmer is setting up his investigators to combat the town’s robust drug activity.
“Now with the Narcotics Division we are able to concentrate on the source people, the dealers, the suppliers, who are constantly bringing in the Opanas, the meth, the heroin, the cocaine,” DeMoss said. “That is a big change, as far as narcotics go.”
DeMoss and Walls are now able to exclusively work drug investigations about 70 percent of time.
“We are able to put more time into truly identifying who are threats to our community and chasing them down,” Walls said.
A Game of Cat and Mouse
The detectives said it takes a unique competitive nature to work narcotics.
“It takes a special breed of person to want to do this, to put the time in, the effort in because there is a lot of work. There is a lot of surveillance time, paperwork. You have to deal with a lot of people you don’t want to deal with on a daily basis, but you have to.”
DeMoss and Wall described drug investigations as a game — a game where officers and offenders know their roles well.
“For me personally, it is a game. They are trying to outsmart you to either sell their drugs, or stay in possession of their drugs, or do whatever they have to do to make their money,” Walls said.
DeMoss said getting up close and personal with offenders trying to elude arrest can be an adrenaline rush.
“There are several moments in these investigations where we might be face to face with a drug dealer, and we know we may not be arresting them at that moment, but they know and we know what is going on. They know that we are hitting them, that we are out to get them, and we know that they are playing a game,” DeMoss said. “Those are the times that get us going.”
The detectives said there are times when the opportunity to make an arrest on a known drug dealer presents itself, but if the charges are relatively petty, the detectives will wait for a future date to arrest the suspect on charges that will result in a stronger case for prosecutors and a longer sentence.
“There is a patience level that has to go along with it, and that is one of the hardest things that we have to fight in house amongst ourselves — to be able to slow ourselves down and make sure we are following procedure and getting all the information that is prevalent.”
There are times when the police also needs the public to be patient.
The detectives said information received from citizens, such as a resident who thinks illegal activity could be taking place on their street, is vital to building investigations, but the public must realize the wheels of justice can turn slowly.
“Sometimes the public, they think, ‘We know they are dealing drugs there. Go kick the door down and stop them,’” Walls said.
Walls and DeMoss said it is rarely that simple.
“Some of these investigations take a lot of time. We have to jump through a lot of hoops to get a good case and make it to where we can get a search warrant or make arrests stick,” DeMoss said. “Sometimes we may get information on somebody, and the investigation may last a couple of months before we get our ducks in a row, before we are able to find the right informant or are able to get all the information to put the puzzle together.”
Walls said patience on behalf of the department and the community is needed to be sure the offenders are not able to reduce their charges and their sentences during prosecution.
“We are making sure when we do go to court, they are doing time. There is no way out of it. There is no grey area because we are going to have them,” DeMoss said.
DeMoss said by officers not acting too quickly, an investigation can reap higher yields.
“We don’t want to rush in to something because we may be able to get this guy here, but if we spend another couple of days investigating it, we could have actually got him and the guy above him,” he said.
Building Drug Cases
While the Narcotics Division has realized some early success, the task of curtailing drug activity in Clarksville presents formidable obstacles.
Chief of Detectives Darrell Rayborn said one of the primary impediments faced by the drug squad is limited funding.
“You got to have money to do this,” Rayborn said. “We are on a limited amount of money, but we are making do with it, and we are accomplishing things with that.”
DeMoss said a drug investigation requires significant amounts of money for officers to orchestrate undercover buys.
“When you are talking about buy money and when you go into really in depth with investigations, and the investigations that are going to take you to that main, main source and you try to just keep on working up that ladder, it takes money,” DeMoss said.
DeMoss explained how money can be lost while building a drug case.
“If we are going to come out here and do a buy for an ounce of cocaine or an ounce of heroin, you are talking $1,300 to $1,400 of buy money. We have some money, but we can’t just let $1,300, $1,400 go and then down the road expect to get that money back. There is a possibility that we may not get that money back. We might make an arrest, but may not get that money back,” DeMoss said. “And we need that money for other things, also.”
Even with limited funding and equipment, the drug squad is building cases and making arrests.
“We are trying to do as much as we can with the limited resource we have,” Walls said.
Clarksville’s Drug Cycle
The detectives said the drug scene in Clarksville unfolds in a cycle as specific substances gain wide-spread use, then go out of style to be replaced by a more popular drug.
“In the 1980s we had the crack and the cocaine, then we started with the meth issue,” DeMoss said.
He said methamphetamine use was a larger issue in Clarksville 15 years ago, then laws passed by legislators curtailed the use of the substance in the area.
“Prescription pill abuse, primarily Opana and Oxycodone, then became very prevalent among young people,” he said.
DeMoss said prescription pill manufactures assisted the efforts of law enforcement by reformulating production to make the pills more difficult to be crushed and subsequently snorted.
While police, lawmakers and manufactures have made drugs less obtainable, drugs remain easily accessible in Clarksville.
“But, we can still walk out the door and buy cocaine (and other drugs) in the next half hour,” Walls said. “It is there.”
With the decline in prescription pill abuse, a door has been opened for a different, dangerous drug to become widely used in the area, heroin.
“We are seeing a lot of heroin now. Kids are going to heroin because it is cheaper, and you get the same high,” DeMoss said.
The detectives said in recent months they have seen an upsurge in reports of heroin overdoses, including reports of people overdosing from heroin in restaurants and public bathrooms.
“Heroin seems to (account) for a large number of overdoses. It is being recklessly abused right now,” Walls said.
By the Numbers
The detectives attribute the early success of the Narcotics Division to the work of the department’s uniform officers and the guidance they have received from surrounding agencies with active drug squads including the Jeffersonville, New Albany, Louisville police departments, Floyd County Sheriff’s Department, FBI and DEA.
“We have been able to shadow them a little bit or bounce questions off them to help us feel out what is going to work,” Walls said. “A lot of the reason we have had so much success is from their trials and errors in the past.”
Since the Narcotics Division was assembled earlier this year, its detectives report having made more that 80 drug-related arrest and busted four methamphetamine labs and four marijuana cultivation operation.
The Division reports the drugs, including, cocaine and heroin, it has seized total a street value in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It also reports seizing $80,000 cash and automobiles.
DeMoss and Walls said the department’s new, aggressive posture toward combating drug activity in Clarksville has been well received by the community.
“The public now, especially in Clarksville, sees that we are being proactive when it comes to drugs.” DeMoss said.
DeMoss said with the support of the Palmer’s administration, the Narcotics Division is prepared to let drug dealers know that if they use the streets of Clarksville to sell their dope, they will eventually be arrested and prosecuted.
“We are here to stay. If people want to bring drugs into Clarksville, they want to set up shop, they want to deal, then we are going to come get them,” he said. “It may not be tomorrow. It might not be next week. It might not be next month, but we are coming, and it is just a matter of time.”