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Pandemic complicates illegal drug enforcement

Blair County law enforcement agencies reported increased drug activity during the coronavirus pandemic, but in some cases, social distancing restrictions hampered their efforts.

“There were two issues that arose from the pandemic,” said Blair County District Attorney Pete Weeks. “We’ve seen more substance abuse, because of the stay-at-home orders and the circumstances brought on by decisions made during the (COVID-19) pandemic.”

The second issue law enforcement encountered was fewer impediments to drug traffickers moving through the community as lockdowns hindered house-to-house investigations, Weeks said.

Several metrics are used to track drug activity within communities, but for clarity and ease of access, the Altoona Mirror requested data from local law enforcement, measuring the number of possession with intent to deliver charges processed from 2018-20.

Weeks said possession with intent charges fall under a felony crime that includes manufacturing or transfer of controlled substances. The onus of proving intent to deliver rests on the prosecuting authority.

Common ways of showing intent include presenting the substance’s weight or packaging as consistent with previous delivery methods and revealing communications from the accused that declare intent, Weeks said.

“More PWID charges don’t always correlate to more drug activity,” Weeks said. “Usually if we have more charges, it means law enforcement is being more aggressive in that area.”

Altoona, Tyrone

With its jurisdiction covering the heaviest populated area in the county, the Altoona Police Department reported the most possession with intent to deliver charges over a three-year span.

Altoona Police Sgt. Matt Plummer said the department processed 256 PWIDs in 2020, 200 in 2019 and 339 in 2018.

“The pandemic has absolutely had an effect on the methods we’ve used this year to target the sale of narcotics,” Plummer wrote in a digital message. “Due to (Gov. Tom Wolf’s) orders this year, it was very difficult to conduct controlled purchases with police informants or undercover officers.”

Plummer credited community reports and the department’s narcotics division with its ability to maintain a consistent response to drug activity throughout the year.

“As you can see by the numbers, we were still able to have successful enforcement by altering our tactics,” Plummer wrote. “This year, we utilized a more proactive policing approach and saturation details that targeted drug sales.”

While most local agencies reported an increase in drug activity, Tyrone Borough Interim Police Chief Jessica Walk said possession with intent to deliver charges don’t always paint an accurate picture of a single year’s enforcement activity.

Some of the possession with intent cases Tyrone police processed in 2020 were from investigations conducted in 2019, Walk said.

Tyrone police processed 19 possession with intent to deliver cases in 2020, 28 in 2019 and 5 in 2018.

“It’s definitely getting worse — the methamphetamines are definitely more prevalent,” Walk said. “But I don’t think we’ve seen an impact to our enforcement efforts as a result of COVID-19.”

Hollidaysburg Borough, state police

In Hollidaysburg, the pandemic aided drug policing efforts by granting officers more time to work on investigations, Hollidaysburg Borough Police Chief Rodney Estep said.

“We processed significantly more PWIDs in 2020,” Estep said. “Overall, we saw an increase of about 60 percent in PWID charges.”

Estep said decreased vehicle traffic during the pandemic allowed his officers to spend more time working on other investigations.

In 2020, the Hollidaysburg Borough police processed 35 PWIDs. The department processed about 22 in 2019 and about 20 in 2018.

“Methamphetamine has been a problem for all of Blair County, and Hollidaysburg is not exempt from that,” Estep said. “We spent a good amount of resources in 2020 apprehending and prosecuting drug dealers.”

Pennsylvania State Police spokesperson Trooper Chris Fox reported Troop G processed 24 possession with intent to deliver cases in Blair County in 2020, 31 in 2019 and 22 in 2018.

Allegheny, Logan townships

Allegheny Township Police Chief Leo Berg III said his officers changed their enforcement tactics as precaution against infection, but COVID-19 restrictions didn’t hamper their efforts.

“We’ve utilized common sense in our approach to enforcement, using personal protective equipment, limiting hands-on interactions and taking extra precautions,” Berg said. “But the pandemic hasn’t affected our drug enforcement at all.”

Allegheny Township processed three possession with intent to deliver charges in 2020 and none the previous two years.

In Logan Township, Police Chief David Reese said 2020 was a bit of a roller coaster for drug enforcement.

“I think during the first part of the year, our calls were down a little as people were staying home due to the lockdown,” Reese said. “By mid-summer, we were back up to a higher normal.”

Logan Township police processed 15 possession with intent to deliver cases in 2020, 28 in 2019 and 12 in 2018.

“That number doesn’t really represent how many hours our officers dedicate to specializing in finding those drugs,” Reese said. “On regular patrols, there are a lot of small amounts that are found, which can lead to a PWID arrest. But most PWID charges are the result of developing informants.”

With social distancing in place during spring, Reese said his officers were interacting less with people on their regular patrols and fewer people were out of their homes to interact with.

Unlike Altoona, Reese said his department doesn’t have a narcotics division, relying primarily on information reported by the community.

“For us as a small department, we’re set up to handle calls,” he said.

Enabling crime

One of the pandemic’s most significant impacts on law enforcement was a decrease in information from typical reporting sources.

Weeks said state agencies, such as child welfare services, weren’t conducting regular in-home visits, which can yield vital information about drug trafficking and other crimes.

“It’s the same problem with children not going to school,” Weeks said. “If they don’t go to school, and they are abused, who do they have to report it to? In a lot of ways, the pandemic has enabled certain types of crime.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ike Fredregill is at 814-946-7458.

Blair County drug cases

The COVID-19 pandemic played a mixed role in drug enforcement throughout Blair County. The number of possession with intent to deliver charges doesn’t paint a complete picture of drug enforcement, but it can provide insight into local drug trends.

Department 2020 2019 2018

Allegheny Township 3 0 0

Altoona 256 200 339

Hollidaysburg Borough 35 22 20

Logan Township 15 28 12

Tyrone 19 28 5

State police (Blair County cases) 24 31 22

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