EAST SMETHPORT — Pennsylvania Attorney-General Josh Shapiro met with McKean County law enforcement officials at a “Coffee with Cops” event Tuesday morning at Raught's Country Kitchen, one stop on a five-county swing through the state's northern region where he discussed the state's opioid and drug problems.
In her opening remarks, McKean County District Attorney Stephanie Vettenburg-Shaffer noted the huge challenge of heroin, the resurgence of meth and the unique challenges these drugs present to local law enforcement agencies, adding that she was also glad to see Gov. Tom Wolf's recent declaration that recognizes the opioid crisis, a public health epidemic.
Shaffer also pointed to the fact that many of the state's rural areas lack sufficient resources to fight devastating illegal drugs, especially getting more resources for treatment.
Shapiro, who previously served in the State House from 2005-12, and chaired the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, took office as attorney-general in 2017. During his first year, this office has arrested more than 4.4 drug dealers per day on average. "We threw our resources at diversity," he said. "We can't arrest our way out of the drug problem."
As a partner with the state's law enforcement agencies, the AG's office in 2017 destroyed 47 tons of unused, illegal and expired drugs, more than double the amount in 2016.
Locally, Shaffer said that drop-off boxes for unwanted, unused and expired drugs are now located at police departments in Bradford City, Bradford Township and Kane, as well as the sheriff's department in Smethport. "They have been a huge success," she noted.
Another helpful part of the AG's diversified war on drugs has been the issuance of 300,000 drug disposal pouches that allow safe disposal of drugs in 17 counties.
J. William Kelly, former police chief and emergency management coordinator in Montgomery County, and now is senior agent in charge overseeing all agents in the Office of the Attorney General, said the AG is zeroing in those drug dealers whose activities resulted in death.
In his efforts to increase treatment the availability of drug rehab resources, Shapiro has worked with insurance companies to expand treatment coverage.
As a major part of his campaign against the opioid crisis, Shapiro helped form a coalition of 41 states' attorneys general that served five leading pharmaceutical companies with subpoenas seeking data and other information about the companies' marketing and selling of prescription drugs.
Shaffer said that since becoming district attorney, she has been surprised at the amount of time and manpower that goes into one drug arrest by the county's drug task force, adding, "It quickly eats up much of the budget."
Sgt. Ryan Nuhfer, station commander at the Kane state police barracks, remarked about the increased incidence of driving under the influence of drug arrests. "If this trend continues, these arrests will soon outpace the DUI-alcohol arrests," he said.
Troopers are receiving increased training in this issue, according to Nuhfer.
Smethport Police Chief Pat Warnick was one of the local chiefs in attendance. He echoed the statements that his small department of two full-time officers and six part-timers, has seen an increase in DUI-drug arrests.
Shaffer added that Warnick's department is faced with patrolling a section of US Route 6, a major thoroughfare experiencing high traffic flows.
Bradford Police Chief Chris Lucco said his department of 19 officers is the county's largest, but still relies heavily on informers whose tips lead to arrests. "With the drug traffic in our city, much of which comes from Buffalo, our officers are often pulled two ways: patrolling or drug investigations."
For Lucco, "Treatment is important, and that can mean funds for educating teachers and parents."
Lucco also suggested what could become incentives for police departments. "They include that state programs, such as grants, cost sharing and with more technology, we could rely less on informants. Better technology could also help our problem of logistics in this area."
Shaffer, who said she appreciated McKean County being selected for a stop on Shapiro's visit to this region, said more communication with state law enforcement officials allows us to know what help is available and what to request.
Referring to our area's border with New York, Shapiro asked about cooperation with that state's police departments. Mark DeLuca of the Bradford City Police Department said, "I've had great cooperation with the Buffalo Police.”
Another problem facing law enforcement is the reporting of drug-related deaths in counties that are not the residences of the deceased, which can result in inaccurate reporting data. "This can happen in small counties," said Barbara Connelly-Seesaman, regional director of the Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control in Erie.
In a related topic, Shaffer, noting that coroners are faced with county budgets, called for "clearcut policies stating when autopsies can be performed, as timeliness can affect court cases.”
While saying that coroner budgets don't afford autopsies in all cases, she added that her office has "good local collaboration with coroners and police departments."
Shapiro said he has started efforts to increase the number of treatment beds for drug users. He referred to a federal law that facilities with more than 16 such beds are not eligible for federal funding for drug and alcohol patients. "I have been working with the Trump administration and Congress for federal money to go to any facility, which is an area of agreement with Trump.”
One person who was not a law enforcement official in attendance, pointed to the importance of involving educational and public health professionals in attacking the drug problem in rural areas.
Shapiro agreed that the opioid crisis is a public health problem.