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Petersburg law enforcement could seek federal resources for drug trafficking


The Petersburg Police Department may petition the federal government to become designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA).

A coalition of law enforcement agencies can petition to become a HIDTA region, however, according to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), no agencies in Southeast have applied. In a report to the assembly several months ago, Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht announced that Petersburg was being considered for the HIDTA designation. Police Chief Kelly Swihart said that in November the FBI informed him that they were considering working towards designating Southeast as a HIDTA. Should the Feds go forward with a designation process Petersburg hopes to participate, Swihart said.

The HIDTA designation increases resources, cooperation and intelligence sharing between local and Federal agencies.

According to the office’s website, there are currently 28 HIDTAs, which include approximately 16 percent of all counties in the United States and 60 percent of the population.

The Office of National Drug Control Reauthorization Act of 2006 outlines several qualifying criteria to become a HIDTA designee. One criteria is the region must be “…a significant center of illegal drug production, manufacturing, importation or distribution.” Petitioners must also prove that “a significant increase in allocation of Federal resources is necessary to respond adequately to drug related activities in the area.”

Swihart said Southeast Alaska’s high trafficking arrest rate relative to the population is a key reason the Petersburg Police Department is considering the designation.

“We’re not going to have the amount of seizures they would in a HIDTA in the lower 48 but we’re seeing quite a bit of drug trafficking per capita based on the population,” Swihart said. “When you look at things proportionately we’re as high or higher (in arrest rates) than some of these other High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas.”

Petersburg’s undercover officer, who works for the Alaska State Trooper’s drug enforcement unit Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs (SEACAD), wished to remain anonymous but said methamphetamine and heroin use is rising and has been the drug of choice for the last five years.

“All over Southeast we’re always seeing a lot of meth and a lot of heroin; those are our two main drugs that we see and seem to be causing most of the problems,” the officer said.

According to Alaska State Trooper data, during the past five years in the Petersburg and Wrangell Boroughs, police have investigated 23 cases of drug distribution and production cases, 12 of which have resulted in arrests. (See sidebar)

In Juneau, although seizures of heroin and pills such as methadone have decreased from 2012 to 2013, seizures of Oxycodone increased 253% from last year.

Sitka Police Chief Sheldon Schmitt said he’s unaware of any movement to become a HIDTA designated area but cited a rise in drug trafficking in the region.

“We definitely have a growing drug problem in Southeast, Alaska,” Schmitt said. “I think there’s more attention being paid to it.”

Sitka created a special drug task force six months ago in an effort to deal with the situation.

According to the Alaska State Troopers 2013 annual drug report, the amount of heroin seized from across the state increased from 4.93 pounds in 2012 to 55.12 pounds in 2013.

Between 2012 and 2013, pharmaceutical painkillers such as hydrocodone seizures increased more than 800 percent and oxycodone seizures increased more than 130 percent across the state.

Swihart said partnering with local agencies is instrumental in successfully investigating how drugs get into Petersburg.

Different governing bodies control different modes of transportation and accessing those vehicles is a challenge, Swihart said. For police to investigate drugs in the mail, for instance, they need federal permission from the Postal Inspector.

“Whether it’s that or working with TSA on air carriers or DOT (Department of Transportation) on the ferry system, we have to work with their governing bodies and their managing entities to get into these areas to be able investigate,” Swihart said.

Swihart said there is a cyclical balancing act when it comes to investigating various methods traffickers use to bring drugs into the community.

“I absolutely think they (drug traffickers) have pretty good ingenuity,” Swihart said. “When we put pressure on one vehicle they switch vehicles just to keep us on our toes.”

State Trooper trafficking investigations in the Petersburg and Wrangell Boroughs during the past five years:

Marijuana Sell: 7

Marijuana Production: 3

Marijuana Smuggle: 1

Amphetamine Sell: 1

Heroin Sell: 1

Opium Derivative Sell: 4

Hallucinogen Sell/Distribute: 2

Narcotic Pain Pills sell: 4

12 of these investigations have resulted in arrests.

To paint an accurate picture of drug trends across Southeast is difficult. There is no one stop shop for drug trafficking statistics region wide. Multiple local, state and federal agencies that handle drug related activity collect and store their own data. In many cases, it takes time and money to receive detailed statistics.The Petersburg Pilot has made several data requests and has published what it has received thus far.


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