Rural narcotics enforcement is challenging. Some say it can't be done, others say it can. One rural sheriff said, "I would need 50 more deputies to make an impact." Another law enforcement administrator told members of a rural narcotics task force, "Keep the locals happy, don't worry about catching anyone." When one city council member asked a small town chief what was being done about narcotics enforcement, the chief replied, "Don't ask the question if you won't accept the answer."
Rural law enforcement agencies serving less than 7,000 citizens cannot dedicate employees to full-time narcotics enforcement. Often narcotics enforcement within this type of jurisdiction is a "catch as catch can" situation. Patrol officers may stumble across a controlled substance investigation, but planning and executing specific investigations is not economically feasible.
However, rural narcotics enforcement does not have to be a major undertaking. Nor does it require a dedicated enforcement team, although having such a team is a great benefit for the small community. The only requirement necessary to enforce controlled substance laws in a rural setting is a dedicated law enforcement agency and a committed community.
Know thy community
Small rural communities are unique. Everyone seems to know everyone, and law enforcement officers are often called by their first names and asked how their families are doing. "Mayberry R.F.D." is a reality, and Andy Taylor is not just a character on television. In a community where everyone knows everyone, users and abusers of controlled substances keep their dark secrets hidden and usually a select few individuals are involved.
The arrest or discoveries of these individuals can shock the community. Juveniles, attorneys, business leaders, teachers, city council members, county commissioners and other upstanding citizens are not exempt from being a suspect or arrested. Law enforcement and the community must be prepared for this before launching controlled substance investigations. Each needs to take an active role but most of all, each needs to support the other.
Know the scope of the problem
Before initiating any controlled substance investigation, agency department heads must determine if a controlled substance problem actually exists. Using surveys, studying arrest statistics and conversing with adjoining agencies will provide clues to the problem's severity. The agency should survey hospitals and counseling centers within the jurisdiction and those adjoining the jurisdiction. If the number of drug overdoses at hospitals exceeds the number of voluntary check-ins at rehab centers, a serious problem may exist.
Talking with adjoining agencies will determine if other rural agencies are having similar problems, or if citizens from one jurisdiction are traveling to another to partake in the use of controlled substances. It is also wise to stop by local pharmacies to learn if citizens might be diverting prescription drugs.
Rural investigation dynamics
If the jurisdiction is diagnosed with a substance abuse problem, authorities must then determine the most effective investigatory approach. While traditional narcotics investigations — such as undercover operations, confidential informants and reverse stings, — may be successful in more populated areas, they are time consuming and frustrating in rural settings.
Rural narcotics investigations must be documented so there is no doubt the investigation was accomplished according to law and policy. Small agencies must also keep all employees informed when tackling the investigations. Some agencies fall into the "pit of secrets," where a dynamic leader neglects to inform employees of ongoing investigations. In larger departments, information passes through a "need-to-know" network. But in small departments, every employee, whether sworn or non-sworn, may have a need to know. The small department operates as one team, where each team member knows what other team members are doing, have accomplished (or have not accomplished) on their shifts. This information is passed on so the oncoming shift can continue the work of the previous shift. In small departments, there is no room for one individual to possess vital information and keep it from others. Likewise, non-sworn personnel in small departments play important roles that contribute directly to the mission, goals and objectives of the department.
Educating both agency employees and community members is important. But educating agency members should be the first priority. For departments with little funding, or in some cases, no funding for training, this may seem like the end of the road. It is not.
All law enforcement agencies have unique training opportunities. Learning from those who have "been there and done that" is sometimes better than learning from certified instructors who have limited street experience. Some agencies pool training assets, where one officer receives formal training then trains department employees. Later this employee may take his training on the road to employees of other departments. Rural agencies must tap into every available resource.
Preparing the community
Once the leader of the law enforcement organization garners the support of its employees, it is time to get the community involved. There are three simple steps departments can take to prepare the community. These include:
• Building media relations:
Unlike narcotics investigations in larger jurisdictions, rural investigations need to gain assistance from the media. Strong media ties can help garner public support by giving the department needed exposure. Local radio and newspapers crave law enforcement information. Should the agency begin a new program and neglect to inform the media, those entities will be banging on the door.
A gentle word of caution, however. Give the media enough information to realize what is happening, but not so much information as to jeopardize the investigation. Don't tell the media that a search warrant will be served at 123 Maple St.; instead tell the media that the department is taking a proactive role in narcotics investigations. By giving the media information, not only is the agency now transparent, it will become a trusted agency through this transparency. Rural agencies do not want to be cloaked in secrecy. The more open a small agency is, the more support community members will provide.
• Educating the community:
Thinking out-of-the-box, one agency taught its citizens about drug dangers, drug identification and signs and symptoms of use through a unique educational program. This agency had its employees — all five of them — hold informal meetings, also known as "coffees," to educate citizens. A few employees even received permission from the local school district to use available classrooms for the informational sessions.
Other forms of education which have proven successful involve the Internet. Some agencies use local Web pages to educate citizens.
• Encouraging citizen participation:
Though many departments neglect this, citizen participation that culminates in removing a drug dealer from the streets, or helping a user of controlled substances become a productive citizen, will assist law enforcement time and again. One of the greatest proactive approaches to controlled substance investigations involves the use of non-sworn agency personnel. Some years ago, the secretary of a small department was invited to participate in a proactive approach to narcotics investigation. The secretary held a "coffee" session at her residence and instructed citizens on how to report suspicious activity. The next day, a citizen notified dispatch of a suspicious activity. This information was enough for law enforcement to apply for and obtain an anticipatory search warrant. Due to the information provided by this citizen, police seized more than 500 grams of methamphetamine.
Once community information begins to flow into the law enforcement agency, it is an investigative and logistic matter to use the information and produce a quality case. While the agency has not increased its work force nor assigned officers to a specialized narcotics enforcement team, sworn employees can use community information to perform knock-and-talks, anticipatory search warrants, seize trash left at a curb side, or have citizens act as the eyes and ears of the department. The training of non-sworn employees helps them know exactly what information is needed by sworn members to conduct simple but effective investigations.
Within reason, agencies must recognize that citizens need to be included in the loop regarding sensitive investigations. And within the department, the lines of communication need to flow up and down. When law enforcement and citizens cooperate effectively, the small, rural agency can assure successful narcotics investigations.
Jerry Carlton is a retired lieutenant from the Nevada Department of Public Safety. The graduate of the University of Louisville Southern Police Institute currently resides in the Pacific Northwest, and when not enjoying the outdoor life, fills his time freelance writing.