Police say new tactics pay off in drug cases

Urbana charges triple during first months of program.

Since the 1970s, the division had handled drug cases the same way. That typically involved assigning all tips and drug cases to detectives who were responsible for gathering evidence and, in some cases, spending entire nights watching a home for signs of drug activity, along with all their other duties. But as the economy faltered in the recent recession, the number of officers in the police division fell from 24 to 19.

“That greatly impacted our ability to do a number of things very well,” said Matt Lingrell, chief of the Urbana Police Division.

In response, the police division developed a new method for investigating drug crimes in which every officer is responsible for sharing information and following up on suspected cases. In most instances, the officer who receives the initial tip is responsible for following up on the case. The additional manpower has already shown benefits, Lingrell said.

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 28 in 2012, police handled 11 drug cases and 14 drug charges. During the same period this year, police handled 24 separate cases leading to 45 total drug charges, said Lingrell.

“To me, it’s a very strong indication that the strategy is working,” Lingrell said.

Police raided two suspected drug houses in April, including a home at 452 E. Church St. that led to one arrest and confiscation of evidence that included heroin, cocaine, some marijuana and a large sum of cash. A separate drug raid early in April led to five arrests at a home at 329 E. Court St. Lingrell declined to discuss those cases in detail because they are still pending in court.

On Friday, a raid at a home in the 200 block of East Reynolds Street resulted in four arrests. Officers confiscated marijuana and drug paraphernalia from the home.

In the recent approach, numerous officers from various shifts can spend time checking on a suspected drug house during their shifts, and then pool their information together. Lingrell said it allows patrol officers to gain more experience handling those types of cases, is more cost-effective and allows detectives more time to handle the highest-priority cases.

Like many communities throughout the state, Lingrell said heroin and prescription medication problems are seen much more frequently than they would have been in the past. With a smaller staff, Lingrell said it was important to find ways to address the issue.

Detectives still handle most of the more complicated drug cases in the city, said Kevin Talebi, Champaign County prosecutor. But he said it is an additional tool the police division is using to investigate drug crimes more aggressively. Drug crimes are frequently linked to a variety of other offenses, including theft and domestic abuse.

“There’s a link between illegal drug activity and violent crimes as a whole,” Talebi said. “Drug offenders do not operate within a bubble.”

Lingrell met with city administrators and council members to discuss the strategy during a work session in October last year and said he received support. The new strategy went into effect in January this year.

Increased drug use is an issue many cities around the state are trying to deal with, said Bill Bean, Urbana’s mayor.

“It brings trouble, it brings a lot of other crimes to our community, and we needed to do something more proactive,” Bean said.

In cases in which police cannot prove drug activity is taking place, Lingrell said officers are also beginning to take a more direct approach, by speaking in person to individuals who are suspected of involvement with drug crimes.

By speaking directly to the suspect, it will give the individual a chance to explain what is happening, and if nothing else they will be aware police are monitoring their activity.

“That’s something we never did prior to this year,” Lingrell said.

Some residents said drug use has become more noticeable in general in the city.

Brian Swank, who lives near the home that was raided on East Court Street, said he never suspected drug activity was happening there. The only real sign was that people seemed to be visiting the house at all hours, sometimes as early as 4 or 5 a.m.

“We didn’t suspect anything was going on,” Swank said.

However, he said there were some signs drug use was occurring in the neighborhood. In one case, Swank said a neighbor called police after a bag of syringes was found near the curb on the street.

“When you’re seeing syringes laying in baggies, it’s getting pretty bad,” Swank said.

Talebi said law enforcement frequently adapts to find the most effective approach to deal with drug crimes.

“I think law enforcement throughout the county has a good understanding of that,” Talebi said.

Drug use is a complicated issue that can ruin lives, Lingrell said. Along with drug raids, he said it’s also important to work with the courts to find and develop diversion programs that can help addicts get their lives back together.

“It’s only getting worse, but we can’t put our heads in the sand and say it’s not our problem,” Lingrell said. “It’s society’s problem.”

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