On the front lines, there are no easy answers

In August,drug task force members found 270 grams of cocaine in the luggage of an 18-year-old drug courier from the Hollis-Queens section of New York City. — Photo courtesy of Edgartown Police Department

In the country today, local police forces face a sometimes overwhelming number of different areas of responsibility within a given community. But, it may be argued that no area of concern generates more controversy than drug enforcement.

Different schools of thought exist for every aspect of drug enforcement: the drug laws, punishment, rehabilitation, and enforcement strategies, to name just a few. Just the mention of the “war on drugs” can quickly generate a heated debate. The money that has been and continues to be spent on the effort since the 1970s is astounding. More costly is the number of lives lost and forever altered by the ongoing drug battle.

Fortunately for the residents of Martha’s Vineyard we live on a tranquil little island that is protected by a seven-mile boat ride from the “war on drugs” fought every day in the real world over there. Yeah, right.

Most every Martha’s Vineyard police officer has heard the following ad nauseam: “You’re a cop on the Vineyard? What do you do? There’s no crime there, right?”

My response to that widely held notion usually depends on my energy level at the given moment. Sometimes, I just agree and confirm that not much goes on, and I walk away from the conversation wishing it was entirely true.

My current assignment to the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force (MVDTF) puts me and a handful of other dedicated Island officers directly in the fray. The job, and this assignment in particular, is strenuous at times and always challenging. Most of my fellow officers have many years of experience, and we have a vested, personal interest in our little utopia.

I was born and raised here, and with the exception of four years of college I have lived on the Island my entire life. Like my fellow officers I am raising children here and have strong ties to the community that go back generations on both sides of my family.

My family, just like yours, has seen drug abuse. Whether it be a family member or a close friend, we’ve all been affected in one way or another by the problem.

But whatever school of thought you side with on how to attack the problem, the bottom line is that drug abuse is not beneficial to our community. There is a direct correlation between drug abuse and other crimes in our community, which I know unfortunately to be common. House and commercial property break-ins, motor vehicle break-ins, and stolen property in general regularly occur as a result of drug addiction. The stolen property then gets pawned or traded so an addict can get more drugs.

The habit is expensive. The seven-mile ride that should protect us only drives the price of drugs up to a level that is hard to sustain for an Island addict. However, the power of the addiction does not diminish in inverse relation to the cost. So then the addict sells drugs to cover the cost of the habit. Some of our cases have revealed that cocaine was purchased in bulk for as cheap as $30 per gram. That same gram on Martha’s Vineyard is sold for $100. Percocet pills (30mg) have been purchased off-Island for as little as $14 per pill and sold on Martha’s Vineyard for $50 per pill.

Enforcement on the Island is difficult and unique. Everyone knows everyone. Not quite as much as when I was a kid, but in the off-season everyone is mostly familiar with who is around. So enforcement strategies that our colleagues sometimes use on the mainland are just not applicable for us. As a result, investigations may require more time before we can take action. In some cases, it means backing off a bit until the time is right for a successful arrest.

Supply is one target of enforcement. In 2012, the MVDTF made numerous arrests of persons who were bringing drugs to our island. The profit margin, as I mentioned, is very attractive for out-of-town drug dealers. Some don’t actually believe how much the markup is until they get over here and see it for themselves. That one boat trip just tripled their profit.

These are people that have no business coming to our island and have no legitimate purpose for being here. Some of the people we have come across are true products of their environment, and that includes violent city streets to which they’ve become accustomed. They have no respect for life, much less our island, and have been involved in violence that I hope we never come to see in our community.

They perceive the Island as a drug dealer Disney World. They aren’t getting shot at in an inner city drug dealer turf war when they’re selling coke on the Vineyard. They are also making a significant more amount of money than they’re accustomed to. We do not wish to have these people getting comfortable in our neighborhoods.

One particular investigation resulted in an April arrest and then an August arrest. The combined arrests resulted in the seizure of approximately $31,000 worth of cocaine (street value) and $5,000 cash. These two individuals were from the same Hollis-Queens neighborhood in New York City and worked in an operation that had been bringing cocaine to the Island for several years.

Unfortunately, we were not able to hold the boss of the operation accountable, and his 18-year-old female drug courier was caught holding the bag. She will do a significant state sentence. Hopefully, that’s the last we see of that particular operation. One suspect involved in this operation has a record that included armed robberies committed with a firearm.

Another investigation resulted in the arrest of a Worcester man for trafficking cocaine. He and his female companion at the time both had prior arrests for trafficking cocaine and illegal firearms possession.

In 2012, we worked closely with other agencies on the mainland, which has enabled us to better investigate these cases. Other law enforcement agencies — local, state, and federal — have been very helpful to us. They have provided resources and knowledge that have improved our abilities as investigators.

In addition, some local community agencies, businesses, and community members have been extremely helpful to us, and we thank you for your support. All of our investigations at some point rely on help from the community, and without that assistance we would not be able to accomplish a whole lot.

Addicts create dependable demand

Demand is obviously constant because the suppliers seem to keep showing up. For some addicts, handcuffs, jail, and the courthouse are common occurrences. Drug cases are complex and difficult to prosecute. The assistant district attorneys do the best they can with the case we present to them. Some cases are better than others. We learn from our mistakes and move on.

Simple possession cases are dealt with in any number of different ways. Some case dispositions are successful and others are not. For some addicts, one arrest does the trick and they don’t appear on our radar screen again. For others, I have a pessimistic view that they will still be getting arrested when I retire. As officers, some decisions are out of our control and whether we agree with them or not doesn’t matter.

Rehabilitation works for some and is our first priority for an addict. We have assisted addicts with rehabilitation outside the court system and through the court system. We will make an effort to help anyone who asks for it. Could resources be better in this area? Absolutely. Facilities (beds) are in short supply and high demand. Treatment programs and resources are also lacking.

Teaching children

Education and prevention with our children can’t be overlooked. The Edgartown Police Department school resource officer program has been well supported by the school and the community. I have seen how comfortable the kids are getting with our officers. This connection better enables a successful exchange of information between the officer and student. The officer intimidation barrier is diminished, and the kids pay more attention to the information than the uniform. The Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force has also been working very hard to educate our youth and parents as well.

Marijuana and prescription pills remain the most abused drugs of choice on the Island at this time. Prescription pill investigations present unique challenges when a supplier is properly prescribed and legally possesses the pills. The medical community has stepped up the effort to prevent abuse, but clearly more needs to be done. Cocaine and heroin are still prevalent and in demand on the Island.

Success in this area of policing is hard to judge, in my opinion. Sometimes we hear that things have “dried up” and a drug of one variety or another has been hard to get on the Island. However, those times don’t seem to last all that long, and then things are busy again.

Our MVDTF 2012 narcotics arrests are consistent with 2011, at roughly 25 per year. Those numbers are solely MVDTF investigations, which do not include all narcotics arrests. Edgartown Police Chief Tony Bettencourt has strongly supported the drug enforcement effort with officers assigned full-time to drug investigations. This has allowed us to make a strong contribution to the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force working along with the officers of other Vineyard towns and the Massachusetts State Police.

For 2013, with the continued support of the community and the Island police chiefs in the Martha’s Vineyard Law Enforcement Council, we will continue the enforcement effort. The effort will consist of keeping after our known players in the game and making it very uncomfortable for any newcomers who try to establish themselves on our island.

On behalf of the MVDTF, I wish all of the Island community a happy and healthy 2013.

Edgartown Police Detective Sergeant Chris Dolby is a member of the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force, a regional investigative body.