Cities, towns, and counties across the country have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic, and prosecutor’s offices are testing innovative ways to turn the crisis around. Creating task forces, using new technologies, and building intelligence, they’re carrying out a variety of strategies — from targeting drug traffickers and disrupting the opioid supply to breaking the crime cycle by improving access to treatment.
Enhancing Overdose Investigations
The Shelby County District Attorney General’s Office (SCDAG) in Memphis, TN is partnering with the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and the University of Memphis to target drug suppliers. SCDAG will use a mobile Cellebrite technology known as a Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED InField), which extracts data from cell phones in only 20 minutes to an hour so detectives can retrieve crucial evidence and identify investigatory leads — such as the identity of the individual who delivered the drugs causing overdose — right at the scene.
The IPS team hopes that overdose survivors will be more likely to consent to a search of their device because with UFED InField, officers don’t have to take the phone back to the MPD (as they do with Cellebrite’s stationary technology); victims can also choose to share only information pertaining to the investigation. Crime analysts and detectives will use complementary analytical software to search a database of content from up to 500 cell phones at once, enabling them to make crucial connections between overdose victims, witnesses, and drug suppliers.
The District Attorney’s (DA) Office in New Orleans, LA is also using mobile Cellebrite technology, along with spearheading a Rapid Response Overdose Homicide Unit, to improve on-scene investigations and gather the crucial digital evidence needed to identify and prosecute opioid traffickers and illegal drug organizations. An Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office Investigator will coordinate efforts among various law enforcement officers and first responders at the scene of an overdose, and will serve as the critical link between the Rapid Response Unit and the DA’s Office. A dedicated prosecutor will work hand in hand with the Coroner’s Investigator and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to hold opioid suppliers accountable. These strategies will be complemented by a public education campaign to identify and report “bad batches”— a shipment of drugs laced with lethal amounts of a substance, often fentanyl — to the community in an effort to build public trust and prevent further deaths.
Building Intelligence on Drug Traffickers & Suppliers
Both East Baton Rouge, LA, and Clare County, MI, are creating collaborative groups to gather intelligence on major drug dealers. The East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office is leading an interagency team that regularly compiles, reviews, and analyzes a robust dataset pertaining to opioid prescriptions, overdoses, Narcan distributions, opioid-related arrests, and more. Through monthly data dashboards, social network analysis, and drug market mapping, the team is gathering intelligence to target enforcement of hotspot areas while building cases against high-volume suppliers.
In Clare County, the Prosecutor’s Office is creating a task force of all regional law enforcement agencies, which will meet monthly to review current opioid investigations, cases, and potential new leads. A dedicated prosecutor will oversee all prosecution efforts, while a deputy from the local sheriff’s department will develop street-level intelligence regarding drug distribution, identify confidential sources to participate in controlled purchases, and perform forensic downloads of cell phones seized pursuant to search warrants.
In Detroit, MI, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office (WCPO) is restructuring its Major Drug Unit to handle all opioid-related cases — which previously fell under the purview of multiple units — enabling the office to centralize intelligence and gain a more complex understanding of drug crime in the area. The WCPO will leverage data to uncover patterns and trends of illegal opioid use, with a particular focus on areas of overlap between illegal drug activity, overdoses, and violent crime. This analysis will help WCPO to identify opioid hotspots on a micro-level, enabling law enforcement to intervene at the specific addresses, intersections, and street blocks generating violence in the city. The WCPO will also utilize a one-person grand jury to fast track investigations, while several prosecutors will coordinate safety planning and substance abuse services for cooperating witnesses.
The Middle District Attorney’s Office in Worcester County, MA is also analyzing datasets connected with overdoses and identifying opioid hotspots. This analysis, done in partnership with Fitchburg State University researchers, will inform the strategies of the Middle District's Massachusetts State Police Detective Unit and other regional law enforcement to identify large-scale drug distribution networks. State Police detectives will work closely with a dedicated prosecutor to build cases against suppliers who deal drugs that result in fatal overdoses. The team will also conduct monthly fatality reviews, which will focus on assessing and improving the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for opioid overdoses.
The Office of the District Attorney (DA) in Montgomery County, TX, has taken a different approach, choosing to target doctors who overprescribe opioid medications. The DA’s Pre-Crime Unit, comprised of a prosecutor, investigator, and a part-time paralegal, analyzes prescription volumes and changes in prescribing behaviors based on data from Texas’s Prescription Monitoring Program, the County Forensic Services Department, County Hospital, and the Texas Department of Public Safety to identify “pill mill” medical practices. To date, the Unit has indicted four of Montgomery County’s most notorious pill mill doctors and has worked with the state board to revoke the doctors’ medical licenses.
Focusing on Treatment
Recognizing that individuals who commit specific low-level crimes are often motivated by addiction, the prosecutor’s office in Hocking County, OH is creating a drug diversion program. In coordination with the county’s Project HOPE (Hocking Overdose Partnership Endeavor), the program will provide participants with the substance abuse and behavioral health services they need instead of jail time. A dedicated prosecutor will handle the increased drug caseload and lead the development of the program’s policies and protocols. The prosecutor will dismiss charges against all participants who complete the program — providing them with a clean slate and an opportunity to live a substance-free life.
A multidisciplinary team in Covington County, AL, is creating an Opioid Abuse and Prevention Task Force to provide treatment while enhancing the criminal justice response to overdoses in the region. Made up of representatives from several local law enforcement agencies, the Task Force will investigate every suspected overdose and provide medical treatment to witnesses at the scene. The team will also train other regional law enforcement officers and first responders on the proper procedures for collecting and documenting evidence of fatal overdoses, which will be treated as potential homicides for investigative purposes. Additionally, the Task Force will provide an Overdose Response Pack — containing naloxone, latex gloves, respirators, and other essential items — to every shift at every police department, fire department, paramedic unit, and rescue squad in the county in order to save the lives of overdose victims while ensuring the safety of first responders and the communities they serve.
The District Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee, WI, is tackling the opioid crisis through a multipronged strategy. A community prosecutor will handle all opioid-related offenses in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee, where she will work closely with first responders, treatment groups, and probation/parole officers to intervene with overdose victims and their networks. The West Allis Police Department and researchers from the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) will conduct social network analysis to enhance investigations into drug trafficking and overdose-related deaths, as well as to identify individuals in need of substance abuse treatment. The community prosecutor and MCW will also spearhead a monthly Overdose Fatality Review to identify gaps where the system missed the chance for intervention and to develop new strategies to reduce overdoses.