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New Castle County Police Chief Elmer Setting leads the weekly predictive analysis meeting at the Cpl. Paul J. Sweeney Public Safety Building in New Castle on April 1, 2014. The meeting highlights the heroin problem and the property crime it produces as addicts try to get money to feed their habits. / Suchat Pederson, The (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal

WILMINGTON, Del. - Every Tuesday morning, a briefing room at New Castle County's police headquarters fills with people staring at a wall of giant video screens, displaying maps of simple crimes. Loitering. Car break-ins. Burglaries. Panhandling. Public disturbance calls. Every icon potentially critical to Delaware's war on heroin.

Yes, police here are convinced, every blip of criminal activity deserves scrutiny as they try to stem the deadly trade of heroin and a string of other connected crimes. Every detail matters. Nothing is too small.

Heroin is killing more Delawareans each month, and as the number of overdose deaths increases so does the number of skulls and crossbones dotting the maps displayed on the big screens. The symbols are reminders of every life lost to an alcohol or drug overdose, with cheap and plentiful heroin pushing Delaware deaths to an average of 15 a month.

Leaders here say cracking down on panhandlers, prostitutes, loiterers and public drinking can reduce the drug trade and violent crime. Allowing those things to fester sends a message to drug dealers that it's OK to do business.

"They're all symbols of lawlessness," New Castle County Police Chief Elmer Setting says. "When you interrupt those kinds of things, you stop the pebble from hitting the water and all the ripple effects."

Setting is building on others' success with a new style of policing, analyzing and sharing data on reported crimes to understand not only what types of crimes will take place next, but when and where they are most likely to happen.

He and supporters say old methods of crime-fighting aren't enough to combat a national heroin scourge labeled an "urgent public health crisis" by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The drug's popularity and easy access has led to surges in violence and deaths in communities nationwide.

Police here say they can no longer wait for 911 calls and then rush to the scene of a crime that's already happened. They aim to find ways to get ahead of it, using hints offered in the crime data to locate drug dealers and users so they can disrupt their business.

That's why, the police chief says, he holds these meetings every Tuesday morning, assembling an array of stakeholders beyond cops to include prosecutors, other elected leaders and county workers.

"We're trying to tell the dirty little secret that a lot of people don't want to hear," Setting says. "It's that a heroin addict in New Castle County isn't only an urban problem, or an older homeless guy under a highway ramp. It's everywhere in the county."

Police and prosecutors across the country are trying new strategies to push back against surging heroin trafficking and overdoses.

In Wisconsin, prosecutors are more frequently pursuing charges against those who provide fatal doses - doubling the number of homicide charges from 2011 to 2013. County prosecutors charged 71 people with first-degree reckless homicide by drug delivery in 2013, up from 34 in the previous two years, court records show.

In Florida, Tampa police cut the number of special units and instead emphasized officer patrols to impact rising crime and a flood of drugs. Technology allows supervisors to assign officers to specific geographic areas after using data to identify hot spots. The overhaul is credited with helping reduce crime by 65%.

In Illinois, city and state police are cracking down on Interstate 290, a route that's become known as the "Heroin Highway" in and out of Chicago.

In Delaware, New Castle County is borrowing ideas that work elsewhere, hoping to see similar drops in drug activity and violence.

That's a struggle for Delaware, a state sliced by interstates that serve as major East Coast corridors used to haul some of the purest of the heroin seen in the nation, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Setting took a few pages from Tampa's playbook and borrowed from Memphis' Operation Blue CRUSH, another program designed to predict criminal behavior. He also resurrected former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani's 1980s policing model, when cops there arrested even people who jumped subway turnstiles. Known as the "broken-windows theory," Giuliani argued that cracking down on minor crimes would deter bigger crime.

"And what we're doing is broken windows on steroids," Setting says.

John DeCarlo, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, cautions that predictive analytics works better to reduce violent and property crimes. Traditional undercover operations are best to stem the heroin supply, he says.

To gather better intelligence for drug stings, New Jersey State Police and other agencies across the U.S. have created fusion centers, a kind of clearinghouse for what federal and local law enforcement know about the drug trade.

"All departments have good information, but historically don't communicate with each other well," DeCarlo says. "Fusion centers take data and people from all levels of law enforcement to create intel that is greater than the sum of its parts, which becomes a whole new area of policing."

No matter how proficient police get, combating the drug trade is "like trying to put your finger in the hole of a dike," he says. "You know there's a lot more water coming."

In Delaware, a stretch of run-down, two-story apartment buildings across from a Mercedes-Benz dealership and a charter school earned the dubious title of Heroin Row.

Just between Wilmington's city limits and Greenville, the Silver Springs Apartment's laundry room often is littered with empty heroin bags and discarded needles. It's an open toilet for addicts too high to care about where they go to the bathroom. Coin boxes on washing machines have been ripped open by addicts desperate for quarters. Now they're ashtrays full of burnt cigarette butts.

Long neglected by police from both cities, the complex stood as a reminder of how each department rationalized that the other was handling the problem.

"All of that led to a sense of lawlessness that in part allowed the heroin trade to thrive there," Setting says.

Heroin Row symbolizes how far the drug trade has spread from the streets of Philadelphia, where Delaware addicts used to travel to score a small bag.

In the 1980s and 1990s, county police staked out an area in Philadelphia known as The Badlands, an infamous haven for cocaine and heroin. They looked for cars with Delaware plates, followed them back down Interstate 95 and pulled them over once they crossed the state line.

It was an effective tactic then. It's unnecessary now.

Delaware heroin's availability, purity and cheap price is a result of a government crackdown on prescription opiates such as Percocet and Oxycontin, says David Dongilli, special agent in charge of the DEA for Pennsylvania and Delaware. "We've created a new generation of heroin addicts," he says.

Today, heroin's on sale in plenty of suburban areas. Many of the hot spots appear similar to Silver Spring Apartments, where that ground-floor laundry-turned-heroin-haven is located just hundreds of feet from a day care center. After a months-long undercover operation, police arrested 11 people and took 338 grams of heroin. Local police say the 13,500 single-dose bags are the largest-single heroin bust in the department's history.

The cops also aimed to make a statement that they were no longer ignoring Silver Springs. For a week before the big raid, local, state and federal officers set up vehicle checkpoints along Lancaster Avenue, forcing the addicts and dealers to run a gauntlet of cops to get to the apartments. They netted 39 arrests and seized heroin, cocaine, marijuana, pills, cash and a pistol.

County police statistician Mike Walsh says many departments still rely too much on responding to 911 calls. By creating maps of recent hot spots instead, police can predict where the next crimes may occur. That means cops can deter crimes because they're already patrolling those areas or at least get there faster.

Known as a Targeted Analytical Policing System, Walsh compares the approach to being a fishing guide.

"If you're a lousy guide, you give him a rod and tell him to go fishing on the lake," he says. "If I'm good, I can tell him to go behind the island at 2 p.m. and he'll probably catch a fish. If I'm really good, I can tell him there is going to be a fish named Wanda sitting behind the big rock and what particular kind of bait to use to catch it."

Special patrol teams use the TAPS numbers to plan anti-drug sweeps in the high-crime areas. They often start with simple traffic stops, which they leverage into chances to search vehicles.

Shortly into his morning shift on a recent Monday, patrolman Alex Faux got a call about a weekend burglary.

He learned that the victimized couple had let the suspected thief live with them before. He'd stolen from them a few times. This time, he took jewelry that had sentimental value. "He told my husband he had done a couple bags of heroin recently," the woman told Faux.

These cases are why New Castle police created the Property Crime Division this year. The influx of heroin into the area is a driving force behind the county having the fourth-highest per-capita property crime rate in the nation.

Police say that after addicts exhaust handouts and stealing from families or friends, they move on to neighbors, stealing everything from wedding bands and graduation rings to aluminum siding from houses and catalytic converters from cars that they can sell at scrap yards.

Similar links extend to seemingly minor crimes, Chief Setting says. Last month, a special patrol responded to a complaint of a panhandler at Brookside Shopping Center. Police number-crunchers determined the best time to catch him was around noon on Tuesdays or Thursdays.

When police arrived, they also found one of New Castle's top drug dealers nearby. They followed him back to his stash of 2,600 bags of heroin.

"That's exactly the point of what we're doing," he says. "The old way, police never would have been in that area, because they wouldn't have had time to respond to a panhandling complaint. Now that we're in the right place at the right times, it produces additional arrests."

Contributing: Eric Litke



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Scanning the battlefield in war on heroin

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