County drug task force gets to work
EAGLE COUNTY — The Vail Valley has long battled problems with illegal drugs, both as a trafficking corridor and with usage, but now local law enforcement are working together to create an anti-drug task force that they hope will help combat the problem.
The new task force is a combined effort between all of the county’s law enforcement agencies and the district attorney’s office. Vail is dedicating a new narcotics officer position to the force, and the Sheriff’s Office, which spearheaded the effort, will provide two full-time positions to the effort. Other police departments across the valley aren’t in a financial position to provide staff for the task force, but will be helping with cases and contributing when needed. All of these departments will be working closely with the district attorney’s office to prosecute the cases that come through, said Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger.
The task force is relatively new — local agencies have been talking about it since the beginning of 2015, and they’ve been working together since the summer. The force is so new that it doesn’t yet have a name, but they’ve already been responsible for a few big drug busts, including June 2015 drug and firearms arrests made in Vail that led to seven indictments, and a couple butane-hash oil offenses.
A cyclical problem
While the task force is new, the problem of hard drugs in the Vail Valley is not.
“Resort communities kind of encourage that party atmosphere, and that’s been going on since the town has been around,” said Henninger. “However, over the last 15 years, I don’t think we’ve been addressing the problem effectively.”
Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek said that besides the problem of use of drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, ecstasy and heroin, the area is also a trafficking corridor for the distribution of the drugs.
“We’re a high volume trafficking area because we’re a crossroads,” he said, adding that he hopes the task force will not only crack down on usage, but on drug sources.
“To decrease drug usage, there’s enforcement, but you also have to actually get to the source of drug usage and make an impact there.”
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown said he hopes the task force’s work will not only decrease the use of hard drugs, but help residents see what’s going in their community. He’s heard numerous stories of how either addictions or a drug arrests have affected local lives, whether directly or through friends and family who have gotten into trouble with drugs, he said.
One of the biggest upticks he’s noticed during the last three years parallels a nationwide problem. Authorities have seen more overdose cases in recent years, especially from heroin use.
“We’ve been able to collect some data to see that the number of overdoses have been increasing,” he said. “I think that has to do with the more prevalent use of heroin due to crackdown on prescriptive opiates. People would get addicted, and then they turn to heroin, which is more lethal. Also, we’re seeing more dangerous strains of heroin being distributed, so people can wind up using more of the drug with higher potency.”
Stemming these problems is no easy task, but local law enforcement realized that different agencies were replicating efforts. As van Beek pointed out, criminal activity doesn’t often know town and jurisdictional boundaries, but different law enforcement agencies weren’t necessarily working together.
Van Beek was with the Eagle County’s Sheriff’s Office in the early ’90s. At the time, there was an intergovernmental task force, but when the funding for the group ended, so did the task force.
“There was an effort when I was here before, and it was highly effective and worked well. Instead of each agency working similar paths, it brings it together a group of trained people tracking these problems and crimes across the county and even in collaboration with other counties,” said van Beek.
The current task force is funded by each of the law enforcement agencies, and isn’t dependent on an outside funding source. Vail approved the new narcotics officer as an extension of an additional officer it hired for the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships. For the Sheriff’s Office, the task force positions were included as part of the agency’s normal growth. It is also providing the office space for the task force.
“We’ve seen excellent participation from across all the agencies. All the commissioners, town councils and mayors have really supported it, and the district attorney has been very involved. It’s been really, really good,” said van Beek. “I’m very excited about this. I feel the collaboration is one I feel that needed to happen.”