Police blame crimes on heroin addictions
HUNTINGTON -- West Virginia State Police are being inundated locally with shoplifting, purse snatching and low-level larceny calls, most of which Huntington's detachment commander blames on the area's ever increasing heroin addiction.
Authorities say it's just another example of the connection between drugs and other crimes, many times property offenses that are committed as addicts look for money to support their habit.
It can be a particularly troublesome cycle with heroin and narcotic pain pills, such as oxycodone. The opiate addictions come with sickening withdrawal symptoms. Those side effects can make addict increasingly desperate.
State Police Sgt. G.N. Losh, commander of the local detachment, said his troopers responded to 55 shoplifting reports in the first 22 days of August. That included three incidents all within one hour that involved the same trooper at the same retail store.
Losh illustrated the link to heroin with his story of a hypodermic needle. He found the needle, luckily capped, in the pocket of an alleged shoplifter during an arrest at a retailer along U.S. 60. He said such a find can be dangerous to an unassuming officer.
"The reports coming across my desk are alarming," he said. "The sheer magnitude, the sheer number that we're seeing. I mean, 55 shoplifting reports in less than a month -- that's something that you can't ignore."
Barboursville Police Chief Mike Coffey and other area police leaders haven't noticed a dramatic spike in shoplifting and other related crimes, although each of the men acknowledged the underlying heroin addiction contributes to many of their agencies' calls.
"Everything generates around that right now," Coffey said.
Heroin, virtually nonexistent in Huntington a decade ago, emerged in the mid-2000s, and experts worry the region's epidemic of prescription drug abuse has created a ready supply of potential heroin addicts.
That's because as initiatives and regulatory reform reduce the flow of prescription painkillers, pill prices skyrocket, leaving those addicted searching for a cheaper option.
All too often that alternative is heroin -- a highly addictive opiate that provides quick relief to those yearning to stave off withdrawal.
Data reported earlier this year showed West Virginia recorded a 44 percent increase in fatal heroin overdoses, a trend also noticed in increasing heroin seizures, ambulance runs and hospital admissions tied to the drug.
Losh said his detachment's recent run of calls show the addiction's other side.
For instance, Losh asked one suspect what he intended to do with the shoplifted merchandise. The suspect responded saying he and others immediately return the item without a receipt and receive a gift card from the store. That gift card is then traded to the addict's supplier for half of its value in heroin.
"So if you come back with a $50 gift card, you're going to get $25 worth of heroin," Losh said. "For some of these people, $30 (in heroin) may do them for the day, but what we're seeing is $100, $200 habits. I ain't got that kind of money, and these people don't, either."
Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas also spoke of what he called a bartering between heroin addicts and their suppliers. He pointed to a Culloden residence where investigators executing a search warrant found a bunch of gift cards for various stores, several high-end vacuum cleaners and battery-powered drills.
"They don't go and try to sell the items at a flea market," McComas said. "They barter with the drug dealers, and then the drug dealers already have a network."
The same basic principle applies in Huntington, although Police Chief Skip Holbrook said his officers find the drug tied to more car and house break-ins as the city lacks the retail development of the Huntington Mall and large box stores to its east.
Holbrook, earlier this year, blamed heroin and prescription drug use for a 3.5 percent increase in property offenses from 2011 to 2012. He was unaware of any more recent increase.
Losh is considering various strategies for waging his detachment's battle. That includes conversations with the retailers and the possibility of increased patrols, but he questions the effectiveness of any effort due to the brazenness of the addicted thieves.
For instance, Losh said it is common knowledge large stores have extensive surveillance systems and security teams. He even recalled one instance of someone shoplifting with a trooper in a store and blue-and-gold cruiser parked outside as he arrested someone else for the same offense.
Such examples cause Losh to question if today's emphasis on alternative sentencing and drug treatment has led to a population of addicts with no fear of consequences.
"It just seems to me that we're locking up the people who scare us," he said. "But we're just not tending to the people who annoy us. We've got to start paying attention to that because what we don't see is it's an ever-growing crime that's not going to get any better."
Cabell County Prosecutor Chris Chiles took exception with any idea that low-level offenders do not get time behind bars. He said many are incarcerated because of their criminal histories and the lacking bed capacity for treatment within the state.
"These addicts, the only thing they're concerned about, unfortunately, is getting money for drugs," he said. "They don't think about consequences."
McComas said quantifying such a opinion is difficult, but he would not disagree that some property offenders may feel emboldened to commit their crimes due to a push for drug treatment and alternative sentencing.
Huntington's police chief explained there must be an appropriate balance. Holbrook said treatment and counseling are critical to reducing the area's demand for heroin and other drugs, although he said repeat offenders may not deserve such an alternative.
"It's important for law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts to all pull in the same direction," Holbrook said. "Yes, there are some first-time offenders that have an addiction problem that I think are very much good candidates for some type of alternative, but we've got a lot of people who are perpetrating these property crimes, who are the same ones law enforcement has been dealing with for years. I mean just repeatedly. So there are some people who need to go to jail."
Several of the retailers affected in the more recent shoplifting and purse snatching incidents are located in unincorporated areas of Cabell County, where only State Police and the Cabell County Sheriff's Office have jurisdiction.
McComas acknowledged calls to those stores have not diminished. He was cautious not to promise increased patrols saying, as sheriff, he must serve the entire county and all of its residents. He said certain retailers may be concerned about larcenies, and he must balance any of their requests with stores in other areas and neighborhoods that may worry about traffic on their streets.
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