SARANAC LAKE - Three weeks ago this morning, teams of local, state and federal law enforcement personnel swept across Franklin County, rounding up suspected drug dealers in what was later called one of the biggest drug raids in county history.
When the day was done, 36 people, half of whom were picked up in Saranac Lake, were behind bars in the Franklin County Jail in Malone on charges of selling cocaine, heroin and prescription narcotics.
Such a large-scale raid should put a big dent in the local drug trade, right? Not necessarily, police admit.
Saranac Lake Police Patrolman Casey Reardon, right, escorts a suspect arrested during the Aug. 28 drug roundup in the village to a patrol car.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
"It slows it down," said Saranac Lake police Chief Bruce Nason.
"When you get these people off the street, somebody else is quick to step in and fill their shoes," said Tupper Lake police Chief Eric Proulx, "and we just start the cycle all over again with another roundup six months to a year later."
If that's the case, then are these periodic roundups really working? Are they keeping drugs out of our communities, making them safer and curbing drug-related violence?
Local law-enforcement officials say the roundups will never eliminate the drug problem in local towns and villages, but say they are effective at curtailing drug-related crime and keeping outside drug dealers from getting a foothold in the area. They also say substance abuse treatment has to be part of any solution to curbing drug problems in local communities.
Proulx said his department will likely be involved in drug roundups for many years to come. He said he believes they are effective at reducing drug-related crimes and keeping the most violent offenders off the street.
"People who use narcotics, cocaine - I've dealt with a lot of people that get violent on these drugs when they use them," Proulx said. "If we're locking up the people that are using these drugs, they're not continuing to be violent out in the community, causing other crimes: hurting people, stealing their property, destroying their property.
Nason said 80 percent of the calls his department answers are tied to drug abuse issues.
"We have noticed that when we are able to be more proactive, like we were this last roundup, we minimize the other crimes related to substance use and abuse," he said. "In that aspect, I'd say yes, we're making progress."
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne agreed that spinoff crime from drugs is a big reason why police have to stay aggressive. He said police in Malone recently arrested a suspect in a string of burglaries who was stealing to support his heroin addiction.
"We can't ignore this because for every one of these people that gets hooked on heroin or crystal meth, you're going to have all this other crime occurring to support these addictions," Champange said.
Champagne said law-enforcement agencies in the North Country have to be "more vigilant than ever before." He said groups that are tied to outside gangs - like the Bloods and the Crips, the Triads and other gangs from urban areas - are pushing hard to expand their networks here.
Asked for examples, Champagne said last year police took down an organized group in Chateaugay that was receiving weekly shipments of heroin from Massachusetts. He also said his office has been assigned as special prosecutor in a St. Lawrence County drug-related burglary involving a gang member. The purpose of the burglary, the DA said, "was to go in and kill the person who stole drug money.
"The last couple roundups have been really geared toward, OK, what is going on in our communities, and who are the dealers, and who are the users?" Champagne said. "If we can get the users help, absolutely. There's no mission to put people behind bars. But there is a mission to make sure organized crime stays out of the North Country."
Has that mission been successful? Champagne said yes, because of operations like the one carried out last month.
"I can tell you for an absolute fact that there was heroin and cocaine coming into Franklin County, from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts that we have stopped," he said. "While there's still drug abuse and there's still drug issues, the organized groups that have been known and documented to bring the violence, we consistently have been able to stop them in their tracks."
Winning the war?
Drug raids continue to take place here in the North Country, and across the U.S., amid a changing backdrop in the decades-old "War on Drugs." More and more politicians and pundits say the war is too costly and has been a failure. Some states, including New York, have rolled back their mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws in recent years. Just last month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for sweeping changes in the war on drugs, ordering federal prosecutors to stop seeking maximum sentences for some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said.
Law-enforcement officials in the area acknowledge the shift in tone in the war on drugs, but they say it doesn't change what they're doing on the ground. They say drug roundups and enforcement are needed to get violent drug offenders off the streets and curb pervasive drug-related crime.
"On the national level, that debate that's going on isn't going to affect what we do to minimize the impact to our community and make this place as safe as possible," Nason said.
Champagne said the easing of New York's drug sentencing laws has actually had an unintended consequence: drug dealers in urban areas have less of a deterrent to try to expand their networks.
"Since the sentence is no longer 25 years, the pleas that they are getting are substantially reduced," he said. "Their mindset is, 'It's no big deal anymore with trafficking heroin and cocaine. So if I can make three or four times the profit by driving five hours upstate, I'm a fool not to drive five hours upstate.'"
More roundups and more law-enforcement action can't be the only solution, both Nason and Champagne said.
"You've gotta help people that are addicted," Nason said. "For this particular roundup, many of the people we arrested have an addiction problem, so if they get help, it will minimize the frequency of them coming back and doing it again."
What alternatives are out there to help these kinds of addicts? Bob Ross, CEO of Saranac Lake-based St. Joseph's Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, said Franklin County has an effective drug court that diverts certain defendants from incarceration to drug treatment. He also said St. Joseph's runs treatment programs for people who are in the Essex and Franklin county jails. A study of a more expansive treatment program in the Monroe County Jail found it decreased recidivism by 53 percent, Ross said.
"There's no question that where you have robust, appropriately designed and executed treatment programs, a larger number of people wind up being able to get out of that recidivistic cycle," Ross said. "I'm not of the opinion that seeing somebody else get arrested for a crime is necessarily effective as a deterrent at all as being able to address the issues that may contribute to one's own behavior. Getting treatment, if that's what's necessary, is more viable as a way of breaking that recidivistic cycle."
Nevertheless, police say, they still have to find and arrest the drug dealers.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or email@example.com.