- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
The fight against the drug epidemic plaguing Springfield is a never-ending battle that affects the entire community, police officers said, including through gun violence, stolen cars and shoplifting.
Traffickers have targeted the Miami Valley with not just heroin but also cocaine, powder methamphetamines and fentanyl, Springfield Police Chief Steve Moody said.
The Springfield News-Sun spent a day last week riding along with Springfield Officer Justin Massie during his 4 to midnight shift to see how the surge in drug use and overdoses affect the police division.
The Springfield Police Division had responded to more than 525 overdose calls as of May 30.
“We’re inundated by it,” Moody said.
About 80 percent of the police’s calls are related to the epidemic, the chief said, including gun violence, thefts and shoplifters.
“These are folks that have addiction problems,” Moody said.
Drug dealers have purchased more guns as their profits from heroin and fentanyl increased, Moody said, which led to a spike in gun violence starting in 2015.
The division will use a recently approved income tax increase to hire more officers this year to combat the drug epidemic that’s killed more than 70 people through June 1.
“We’re doing the best we can with what we got right now and it’s going to continue to get better,” Moody said. “We still need the community’s help and that’s with any community policing effort. Community is the most important part of that phrase.”
Before their shift, Springfield police officers attend roll call. Sgt. Matthew Buynak leads the meeting, updating officers about what happened since they last were on duty.
The incidents on Monday, June 5, included a car shot up at a local bar and vandalism at a local high school football stadium.
Massie grew up in Clark County and graduated from Shawnee High School. Before joining the police force, he worked as a Clark County deputy in the jail, which he said has helped him on the street.
Massie is assigned to the southeast portion of the city, its largest district. It’s a high crime area with lots of drug activity, he said.
“I anticipate we’re going to see an overdose or multiple throughout our tour of duty tonight,” Massie said. “We’re seeing them every shift. It doesn’t matter what district you’re in, this thing isn’t discriminating against where you live.”
The division works with state and federal partner agencies to fight drug trafficking in Springfield, Moody said.
The Springfield Police Division has a detective who works with the Drug Enforcement Agency task force in Dayton and two K-9 officers who can sniff out drugs when called upon.
Officers have seen drugs brought into the community in many different ways, Moody said, including body carriers.
The police division also works with McKinley Hall substance abuse treatment center to send one of their peer recovery support specialists to speak with people who have recently overdosed. The program has about a 30 percent success rate with the people it can reach, Moody said.
Earlier this year Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson announced Clark County residents who overdose on opioids might face drug possession charges if they don’t seek treatment.
The 9-1-1 Good Samaritan law, which came into effect last September, provides immunity to people seeking medical assistance for a drug overdose, allowing them to report or seek help without charges. The Good Samaritan Law doesn’t apply to people who overdose three or more times.
In March, law enforcement agencies began handing out a card to people who overdose outlining the Good Samaritan law, including a formal request that they must seek help within 30 days, Wilson said. If they don’t seek treatment, the prosecutor’s office will pursue drug possession charges. So far, the prosecutor’s office is waiting on drug results to return on 14 cases.
A new crime lab developed by local leaders and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office will provide more information on drugs currently on the streets in Springfield, Moody said.
“There’s just all kinds of variables here,” he said. “I believe we’re attacking it with best practices …We’re trying to hit it from several different angles.”
The first two hours of Massie’s shift included several calls for service in other districts, but nothing in the southeast side of the city. Massie and another officer were called to a domestic dispute between a man and woman who have children together, but no charges were filed.
About an hour later, Massie and other officers responded to a call for a possible overdose on North Florence Street.
An employee of a local business came to the home to speak with someone about their rental electronics, but a woman who lives there couldn’t get inside.
The woman told the employee it’s possible a man she knew inside the home overdosed. They then called police, who knocked on the door, which opened immediately. Officers searched for the man but found no one inside.
The woman left the scene before police arrived, but Massie later interviewed her about the situation at a home in the same neighborhood.
“Any more you have to check these calls as closely as possible if you have reason to go into a house to check the welfare of somebody,” Massie said. “It’s very vital because time is of the essence in overdose situations. Luckily, that door happened to be open. With the nature of the call, we had to go check on his well-being.”
The Springfield Police Division had 118 officers, as of June 2, six less than required by the Springfield City Charter.
The division has five officer recruits who are in the peace officer academy and will graduate this month, he said, while four others will complete field training in a few weeks and join the force.
The city is also completing background checks on potential applicants, Moody said. The next state academy begins Aug. 21.
The division will lose one veteran officer to retirement this summer, the chief said, and six officers have interviewed with other police departments. Union workers haven’t received a pay raise seven of the last eight years, he said.
“We still have that problem where we’re losing veteran officers to other jurisdictions who are able to pay more,” he said. “Five to 10 years of police work here is a heck of a resume builder. We see true big city problems here in a town of less than 60,000 people.”
The division has heard complaints about not responding to calls fast enough, Moody said, but it’s difficult when officers respond to more than 170 calls for service every 24 hours.
“The men and women here do a yeoman’s work,” he said.
The income tax increase will be used to pay for six new police officers for a Safe Streets Task Force. Moody hopes to have some the unit up and running in some form by next year, which could include adding more officers to the drug unit.
The city also recently applied for a $1.16 million grant to help hire those six new officers, Moody said. The city will provide $389,000 in local matching money, he said.
“To me, it’s an efficient way of managing the dollars raised by the income tax,” he said. “We need to take advantage of that (grant).”
About 6:30 p.m., Massie stopped for dinner.
“The earlier we go, the better,” he said. “We might not have a chance later.”
By 8 p.m., Massie has cleared all his calls for service, including a call for mistreatment of an animal. He checks areas with high drug activity, including several apartment complexes and businesses where overdoses have occurred recently.
The overdose calls are high priority, Massie said, meaning it often keeps officers from responding to other calls.
“It gives the drug dealers a lot more time to conduct their business when they know that we’re tied up on other matters that are emergencies,” he said.
Officers know the dealers and the users, Massie said. When the two come together, it often leads to drug activity, he said.
The police division is struggling with people concealing drugs in body cavities, Massie said.
“Obviously, we have to take an extra step, if we think that’s happening, getting search warrants to do a body cavity search,” he said. “We’re living in a drug-infested community where it doesn’t discriminate.”
About 90 percent of the time, users tell police they have chronic pain and are no longer able to get medications, Massie said. They’re also not able to get the pills on the street for less than $20, he said, which leads them to buying heroin for less than $10.
“It’s a nasty thing,” he said. “We try to get our handle on it as much as we can.”
As Massie continued to patrol the district looking for drugs, he’s called to help officers who followed a van near the center of town that was reported stolen earlier in the day.
Massie flipped on his sirens and sped down North Fountain Avenue as officers set up a perimeter in the area of the stolen van.
Four men are in the gold Honda Odyssey, dispatcher told officers, and it’s been followed by the van’s owner. Reports indicated the van had driven around Springfield doing drug deals all day. The men bailed before police could make a traffic stop.
The van crashed into a fence in an alley behind a home in the 600 block of East Madison Avenue. Massie blocked the alley on Olive Street, where he detained a man he knows from other previous cases.
Several witnesses identified the man as the driver of the stolen vehicle, but the man denies it.
He was later arrested for receiving stolen property but told Massie he doesn’t know how to drive and he was unaware the van was stolen when he got inside.
Two other people, including one juvenile, were also detained by other officers in the area, both of whom allegedly had drugs in their possession.
Springfield resident Kent Bell was sleeping when he was awoken by a knock on the door. It was the Springfield Police telling him the van had wrecked into his fence.
“At least it wasn’t the garage,” Bell said.
While investigating the stolen van, Massie meets Feather Parks. She moved back to Springfield about two months ago after years away and has noticed the increased drug activity.
“You can drive down the street and tell there’s an epidemic,” Parks said.
She recently resuscitated a friend who was overdosing, she said.
“It’s just sad,” Parks said. “If the people out here selling drugs don’t stop what they’re doing, people aren’t going to get clean. It’s just a continuous cycle.”
‘Builds into bigger stuff’
Officer Jason Phillips was driving through the alley where the van had crashed and later found 18-year-old Craig Gilbreath, who was a passenger in the van. Gilbreath had jogged away from police and allegedly threw two baggies into the gutter near Olive and Cassilly streets, Phillips said.
The officer noticed the bags were white and later found them floating on top of the water in the gutter, he said.
“It’s either cocaine or heroin, more likely cocaine, but we’ll get it tested,” Phillips said.
In recent weeks, local public safety officers have discovered cocaine laced with fentanyl. It’s possible the drugs recovered Monday could have been laced, Phillips said. He wore gloves while handling the drugs and continually rinsed his hands as he completed paperwork after the incident.
“I’m happy about catching the guy that had the drugs, that’s the main thing,” Phillips said. “Sometimes recovering the drugs, you just find it and nobody is attached to it. When somebody is attached to it, it makes it even better.”
Springfield’s drug epidemic feels like a never-ending battle, he said.
“We just do our part, how much we can buffer it, that’s all we can do — as much as we can,” Phillips said. “We have a small department for the most part, limited resources and a limited number of officers. We do the best we can, but it feels good when you get something (like this).”
A lot of drugs are taken off the streets by simply responding to calls for service, he said.
“Small stuff always builds into bigger stuff,” Phillips said.
After clearing the scene an hour later, Massie began writing the reports on the incident near Olive Street. The reports take up the remainder of his shift, including the arrest report, traffic citations and crash report.
Massie also stayed nearly an hour-and-a-half past his shift to speak with witnesses and the alleged driver’s family to corroborate his story. Police have more leads on the case and will continue to investigate the situation, he said.
“We want to make sure we have proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Massie said.
A few overdose calls came in during Massie’s shift, but nothing like he’s seen in recent weeks. The Springfield Fire/Rescue Division responded to 212 overdose calls between April 1 and May 26, according to city records.
Officers previously would have performed field tests on drugs, he said, but it’s now too dangerous given the drugs on the street today. Officers can overdose by touching or inhaling small amounts of some forms of fentanyl so any recovered drugs are now sent to the crime lab.
“It’s very dangerous for us to even open plastic baggies and even handle it,” Massie said.
The 18 grams recovered in the incident is typically sold in increments, Massie said — meaning it could have gone to as many as 180 users.
While officers can make arrests and send a dealer to prison, there are 10 people waiting to take that dealer’s place on the streets, Massie said.
“It’s a small win, but there’s still more,” he said. “It’s fighting an uphill battle. Maybe we did positively affect 180 lives, whatever the case is. Maybe we made a difference tonight on some overdoses.”
SPRINGFIELD’S OPIOID WAR