ST. GEORGE — Less than 20 people make up the Washington County Drug Task Force, but despite it’s small size, the task force made 440 felony drug-related arrests and seized .21 pounds of heroin, 26.4 pounds of cocaine, 40.2 pounds of marijuana and 125 pounds of methamphetamine in 2012.
The task force was formally established in 1997 when former St. George Police Department Deputy Chief Russell Peck — a captain at the time — oversaw three SGPD detectives and one Washington County Sheriff’s Office detective.
Now the task force is comprised of two sergeants and 11 detectives from the WCSO, SGPD, Washington City Police Department, Santa Clara-Ivins Police Department, Hurricane City Police Department, the National Guard, Adult Probation & Parole and the Washington County Attorney’s Office. The task force also works closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Peck said during his three and a half years in the task force, methamphetamine was the most prevalent drug in the area.
Marijuana seized in a 2011 bust at the St. George Airport is stacked by members of the Washington County Drug Task Force. In 2012, the task force seized 26.4 pounds of cocaine, 40.2 pounds of marijuana and 125 pounds of methamphetamine
“It was crazy back then because we basically had a myriad of meth labs,” Peck said. “In fact, we had one of the highest per capita numbers in the nation for meth labs in a county. I would estimate we would have pretty close to one (meth lab takedown) a month.”
After legislators approved the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, changing the regulation of methamphetamine ingredients such as red phosphorous, pseudoephedrine and iodine, Peck said the task force saw a “huge difference” in the number of meth labs they were seeing.
“Meth labs were probably our foremost drug and focus back then, and I think we still see a lot of meth, but I think it’s imported from out of our area,” Peck said.
Changing drug trends
Task force supervisor and SGPD Sgt. Jared Parry said it is “impossible” to predict what drugs and the amounts that are within Washington County at any given time because task force members can’t account for all the drugs in the community. Parry also said keeping up with drug trends can be difficult for task force members because they must constantly adapt to state and federal laws, as well as staying current on different “designer drug” compositions such as Spice and bath salts.
“There are some drugs out there like methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana and some of those more common and well-known drugs that haven’t changed much,” Parry said. “With these new designer drugs, it can be extremely tough.”
Parry said, in his experience, one investigation may lead task force members to a group dealing one particular drug while another could lead detectives to another group dealing a completely different drug.
“From time to time we’ll hear from people who are using drugs that say it’s hard to get a certain drug here,” Parry said. “I think we feel a little bit of success at that point. It’s just impossible to know what the trends are, and it’s due to the fact we just don’t know what’s out there.”
SGPD Chief Marlon Stratton said since the task force takes a proactive policing approach, it is able to reduce other crimes such as thefts and burglaries that are committed by drug users looking for money to purchase drugs.
“We believe a significant amount of crime is attached to drugs, and if they have a $1,000 a day habit, where are they going to get it?” Stratton said. “They are going to commit the thefts and the robberies.”
Stratton said he can’t measure how “great” the work is done by task force members.
High risks and long hours
Peck said he remembers working 24 to 36 hours straight during some investigations.
“We had a big takedown on a search warrant one time for someone dealing meth, and we were basically there all that day preparing for the following morning,” Peck said. “We actually had three locations we had to hit simultaneously, and by the time the smoke cleared, it was a pretty crazy and chaotic scene. We’d been attacked by some dogs, we had to use our firearms, and after the smoke had cleared and we were coming back into town, there had been a robbery that had taken place.”
Peck and other task force members responded to the robbery call and were able to apprehend the suspect.
“By the time we finished up, it was the evening of the next day,” Peck said. “By then your adrenaline is on Mach 5, so it’s hard to go home and go to sleep.”
Parry said task force members must factor in the safety of citizens as well as suspects and officers involved when investigating a drug case.
“As a supervisor, you always worry about that,” Parry said. “You do the best you can during planning, and you always plan for contingencies. There are some things that can happen, but you have to be prepared to deal with them properly.”
Parry said the one thing task force officers have no control over is what citizens or suspects decide to do.
“A lot of times we have to react to that as law enforcement officers,” Parry said. “In a situation like that, we don’t necessarily move until they make a move, but we have to be prepared to make the right move.”
Working on the task force helped Parry become aware of the risks that task force officers face as well as patrol officers who, he says, are more exposed at times.
“As a new task force detective, I remember coming across guns and drugs and coming across people that I would deal with in patrol, but I was not really aware of the magnitude of what’s going on,” Parry said. “In the task force you plan very carefully, and cases are put together very methodically with officer, citizen and suspect safety at the front of that. As patrol officers go out and do their jobs, they are just thrown into whatever they’re called into, but a lot of times they’ll deal with a dangerous situation and never know it.”
Most times, task force members will work long hours and overtime in addition to the hours they serve at their departments to investigate drug cases, task force supervisor and SGPD Capt. Kyle Whitehead said.
“There are a lot of things (officers) have to follow up on, so they work long hours,” Whitehead said. “We try to focus on the larger dealers and those supplying drugs into the area. Unfortunately it’s such an epidemic that we only scratch the surface.”
Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher said the unity among the county agencies is what makes the task force so successful.
“Drug problems don’t just stay within jurisdictional boundaries,” Pulsipher said. “For me, the drug task force, with its unity between all the agencies working together for a common goal, is the biggest success that we have.”
Peck said because the task force was formally established and includes multiple agencies, they were able to apply for the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area grants in 1997. Both of still fund the task force today.
“I like the fact we can bring to bear those same resources anywhere in the county by cooperating,” Peck said. “It’s a lot better synergy than if each individual agency tried to tackle it on their own.”
Parry said although citizens may feel “frustrated” when they leave tips with the task force and they don’t immediately see results, it doesn’t mean that it is going unnoticed.
“We have limited resources, so we look at what we can accomplish and we deal with the problem,” Parry said. “One thing we all have are the rights this country affords us. For us to put together an investigation, it can be very lengthy and very tedious, and it certainly has to be 100 percent legal. If it’s an investigation we’re working, there is a little bit of frustration because we’re not able to take care of the problem as fast as they’d like us to, but our solution may be more permanent.”
Stratton said law enforcement officers are “certainly not perfect,” but officers “try hard” to accomplish as much as they can.
“Officers go out there and put their lives on the line and work those crazy shifts and hours, and it’s all because of the quality of life we love here,” Stratton said.