CINCINNATI – Stopping short of declaring a public health emergency, police officials told city council that homicides and heroin are the two leading criminal causes of death in the city.
Assistant Chief David Bailey and narcotics Sgt. Chris Conners testified before council’s law and public safety committee meeting, outlining the steps the police department has taken to address an opioid addiction epidemic that claimed 62 overdose deaths last year in Hamilton County. The testimony comes at a time when the police department is ramping up its efforts to combat gang violence, much of it circled around the heroin trade.
“The heroin problem is probably one of the worst drug situations I've seen in the 27 years I’ve been here,” said Bailey, who is the head of the criminal investigations bureau, which includes the homicide and narcotics units, and the upcoming gang unit.
Consider in 2010, the police department seized a little more than 4 pounds of heroin. In 2013, that number ballooned to 68 pounds. Narcotics investigators have stepped up their efforts, but the increasing availability and popularity of the drug are also factors in the increase, Conners said. Last year, Cincinnati police filed 1,314 lab submissions to the coroner to test heroin seized on the street. That figure was 368 in 2009.
“Overdoses are due to the inconsistency in the purity of other drugs mixed in,” Conners said.
Conners said Fentanyl is becoming a more common mixing agent into heroin. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate similar but more potent than morphine. It is typically used to treat patients with pain after surgery, he said.
In Butler County, eight cases this year involved Fentanyl combined with other drugs, according to a report by WCPO news partner the Journal News.
“Someone will buy heroin thinking they’re getting the same thing they bought last time, well this time it’s stronger because of the Fentanyl,” Conners said. “Someone that is used to 10 percent purity, and they get a batch that’s 15 or 20 percent pure, that could drive them to overdose.”
A 20-year veteran of the narcotics unit, Conners said investigators hardly saw heroin cases in his first eight to 10 years on the job. The recent seizures are reminiscent of cocaine and crack cocaine seizures of the 1990s, he said.
Between May 2012 and March 2013, Cincinnati police seized heroin 21 times in excess of 200 grams, police records show. On Feb 26, 2013, the narcotics and vice section seized 10,000 grams or 22 pounds of heroin.
“Who is using heroin? Everyone; this is the third epidemic of heroin, at the turn of the century, the '60 and 70s and now,” Conners said.
Police officials, including Chief Jeffrey Blackwell, contend violence is due in part to illegal guns brought into the city and the drug trade, specifically with the rising popularity of heroin. Gangs peddling heroin on city streets and subsequently engaging in turf battles fuel the violence.
“Systemic crime is associated with heroin like crack cocaine, and the violent sub culture with the drug-trafficking violence,” Conners told council.
Gangs have their strongest foothold in some of the poorest areas of Cincinnati. About 50 gangs and 1,700 affiliated members operate in the city, Bailey said. In February, arrested key Tot Lot gang leader Julius White, 24, who supplied the gang network with heroin to operate in the West End, and in early December, police arrested Shamsudin Pickens, 33, in Sharonville, who was already known to police as a suspected gang member and enforcer for a gang that operates in Over-the-Rhine.
Investigators discovered members of the criminal organization regularly conspired to commit several different violent offenses, including unlawfully possessing firearms and transferring guns among other members, officials said.
The investigation also discovered that members of the gang distributed narcotics, mainly heroin, and that members of different gangs acted together on numerous occasions to commit organized thefts, burglaries and robberies.
Police began investigating White after he was arrested in connection with the killing of 14-year-old Dwayne Lamarr Lewis Jr. in South Fairmount in October. Lewis was shot four times, twice in the head and once in the arm and leg, according to the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office.
Gang leaders such as White and Pickens are why police are forming a gang unit – to tackle homicides, heroin trafficking and the gangs that commit them. The gang unit will be under the supervision of former homicide unit commander Capt. Bridget Bardua, who now oversees the narcotics and vice section.
One-third of 2014 homicides gang-related
Of this year’s 22 homicides, seven have been associated with gang violence, Bailey told council. Typically, about 60 percent of Cincinnati homicides and shootings are gang involved. In 15 of the 22 cases, police have either arrested a suspect, the suspect died or prosecution was declined.
District 4 leads all districts with 10 homicides, with six in Avondale alone. District
3 follows with eight homicides, with three in Westwood. All of this year’s homicides have been committed in nine neighborhoods throughout the city.
Homicide investigators, along with the department’s intelligence unit gather information on homicide suspects, especially suspected gang homicides, and that’s critical to reducing violence, Bailey said.
“We do know this, if we’re practicing our CIRV philosophy and we’re doing it right, and the street workers are out there doing their part, it works,” Bailey said, referencing the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence. “If the community is engaged and is on board and moving in the direction of the police, that has a long-lasting impact.
“Same with the drugs,” Bailey said.