Pulaski Council approves funding for narcotics unit

Funding for a proposed narcotics unit within the Pulaski Police Department has gotten the green light from Town Council.

On a 4 to 1 vote during a recent budget work session, council approved adding $83,124 in personnel costs to the town’s budget for the narcotics unit. Councilman Lane Penn voted “no” and Councilman Jamie Radcliffe was absent.

Pulaski Police Chief Gary Roche said he could “spin up” the narcotics unit on that amount along with asset forfeiture money the department had gained from drug cases.

Councilman Joseph Goodman noted that in 2006 alone, when the department had a narcotics unit, it had collected some $34,000 in asset forfeiture funding.

Councilmembers heard a presentation from Roche and members of his department on the need for the return of a narcotics unit.

Roche began his presentation by siting two recent incidents in which uniformed officers working in routine traffic stops had come across illegal drugs.

One recent traffic stop, Roche said, turned up 57 grams – about two ounces – of methamphetamine.

Town Manager Shawn Utt likened that amount to the size of a softball. Roche responded that the 57 grams “is a lot.”

He said a second stop later turned up 14 grams.

Roche produced daily activity reports dating back to 2006 when the department had a narcotics unit. The two-person unit stayed busy.

“We had more buys in town the first two or three months than the current Drug Task Force was able to do all last year,” Roche said.

Roche noted his department worked 124 drug cases in 2016; 126 in 2017; 181 in 2018, and already 65 this year.

He said the jump from 2017 to 2018 represented a 43.65 percent increase. That’s 3.4 cases per week, he said.

Roche noted 2019 so far is maintaining the 3.4 cases per week pace.

“We’ve got a problem,” Roche said flatly. “That’s why we want to dedicate resources to addressing it.”

He continued that “illegal drugs and pill diversion is a cancer in our community – it affects everything in the neighborhood.”

He noted that illegal drug use drives 50 to 80 percent of all crime in the community.

Roche said citizens call his department to report “these 10 minute visits” and the continuous traffic at a house.

“But we’ve got to have the capability to set up and watch that situation and develop the informants in order to go in and alleviate that.”

The drug problem, Roche said, is “a rotting stigma on our community.”

Roche said he understands “addiction is addiction,” and that his officers will prosecute drug users when they come across them.

“But our real target is the dealer,” he told council.

Capt. Andy Anderson told council of an experience he had working in narcotics several years ago.

He had learned of a female drug dealer working out of Christiansburg, and in an effort to lure her to Pulaski County to make a bust, she refused.

“I won’t come to Pulaski,” she told Anderson. “They’ll stop you and find it.”

“We want things to go back to how they were then,” Anderson said.

Roche’s plan calls for two narcotics officers to concentrate their work on the drug problem in Pulaski, even though they would technically be a part of the area’s Drug Task Force.

Roche, noting he could use 10 narcotics officers, said because the two officers would be part of the Task Force, they wouldn’t be hindered by jurisdiction issues and could use state “buy money.”

Noting the recent drug arrests, Roche said uniformed officers had conducted those stops.

“Can you imagine what the problem really is,” Roche asked. “These are people in recognized police cars who are getting these cases. You can only imagine what our problem really is.”

Noting that drug cases “take time,” Roche said today mostly uniformed officers and investigators run up on drug cases while conducting their normal duties.

Narcotic officers, he said, “go after dealers.”

He noted drug cases take a lot of time, and said the Drug Task Force has worked some “really major cases,” some of which took years to work.

Three citizens attended the work session and spoke in support of funding for the narcotics unit.

Sally Warburton, Director of the Pulaski County Library System and a member of the Pulaski County Partners Coalition (PCPC), said she had worked with Roche for some 15 years and was very much in support of adding the narcotics unit.

“This is what Pulaski needs,” she told council.

Warburton said she understood that council needs to be “good stewards” of the town’s money.

“But this is just the next step. We really need this for the town. It would really help the town,” she implored.

Warburton noted that recently – for three days in a row – library personnel had found discarded drug paraphernalia on the front steps of the library when they arrived for work.

Rev. Terrie Sternberg offered a letter of support of the narcotics unit funding, saying she understands that curbing the supply of drugs is the best first step.

“It made a big difference over a decade ago,” she said, adding she agrees with Roche that drug use “is a cancer on the community.”

She said other members of the Pulaski County Ministerial Association – when she explained the possibility of a narcotics unit – agreed with the need.

According to Roche, the department currently has three “viable candidates” to be the members of the narcotics unit.

“I feel like we’ve struck gold,” Roche told council.

Utt added it is rare “to have the caliber of candidates we have ended up with at the same time.”

While the candidates for the unit meet the desired criteria, a couple still must complete academy and road training. One is a certified officer who would need to give two weeks notice before going to the academy. The next academy training session begins June 5. The academy has only two sessions per year.

Two members of council – Penn and Vice Mayor Greg East – expressed concern over having to make a decision on funding while being pushed by a deadline.

East acknowledged the narcotics unit “sounds like a great idea.”

“Council is simply trying to be responsible. It’s about protecting the ground we have recovered financially,” East said.

East suggested taking some further time to study the long-range impact of funding the unit – even if council ponders the issue for just a couple more days.

However, due to the academy training schedule, the rest of council felt the need to act now.

Mayor David Clark noted that moving now and getting officers into the academy early next month would mean having the unit up and working a year sooner than if they wait.

Goodman offered a motion to approve the funding, which Councilman Tyler Clontz seconded.

Two members of council – Brooks Dawson and Clontz – expressed the need to move forward now.

“If you think it’s a good thing today, it will be again tomorrow,” Dawson said.

“What’s going to change,” Clontz asked.

Clontz told council that every good thing council and the town does is met on social media by comments about the need to attack the drug problem.

“It’s almost negligent if we don’t do it,” he said.

New River Health District Director Dr. Noelle Bissell then spoke up.

“Pulaski has some of the highest rates of Hepatitis C in the state and definitely in the New River Valley. That is directly related to drug use. We deal with the drug users, but we can’t deal with them if the dealers are always creating more users,” she said.

“With all that’s been said, no one has said a bad thing” about the proposal, Dawson said.

He said the situation won’t change if council waits until Friday to make a decision.

“This (drug problem) is a blight that holds us back,” said Roche. “Getting rid of that could be a linchpin for economic development to bring in more investment.”

With that council voted, and the unit funding was approved.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot

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