Haines police will search the mail for narcotics

Karen Garcia | Chilkat Valley News

HAINES -- Haines Borough police plan to have mail coming to local post office boxes inspected in the coming months as part of an ongoing investigation of the illicit sale of hard drugs, including methamphetamine.

Police say there's "zero doubt" meth is being sold here regularly, but they lack evidence of such sales. They also don't know if it's being made here.

In the last month, police partnered with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Postal Service, to flag more than 10 Haines post office boxes for monitoring.

"Parcels will be tested for the presence of controlled substances when sent to addresses that have been identified by HPD," interim police chief Simon Ford wrote in a recent report.

Ford said he told the agency who he thinks is receiving the drugs -- including meth -- and where he thinks it is coming from.

"Basically, I gave them addresses and names and said what we think is happening. They're going to keep an eye on those," he said.

Ford declined to discuss other specifics of the inspection program, citing the investigation. He said he is hopeful the move will yield results, as it has in other Southeast communities.

Last December, a person walked into the police station and turned in two baggies filled with a white substance found backstage at the Chilkat Center. The substance turned out to be 4 grams of meth, the largest quantity of the drug found here, Ford said.

Police also confiscated a glass bong last summer that tested positive for marijuana and meth. Meth also has turned up in the blood of some accident victims following mandatory testing.

Police have ideas about who is selling meth here, but getting enough evidence for a search warrant -- let alone a conviction -- has been difficult. They say they've seen individuals exhibiting behavior linked to the drug entering certain homes regularly.

"You drive down the street and see how people are acting and you just know," said Sgt. Jason Rettinger.

Symptoms of meth use include agitation, paranoia, weight loss, decaying teeth and scabs on the face and neck.

Rumors, tips, emails and notes float through the department. "So-and-so is selling this out of this place," someone will say, but nobody wants to step up and say who, when and where, and have their name attributed to the information, Ford said.

"Nobody wants to be that guy," Ford said. "So we get a lot of vague information. It's not enough for us to take it to the judicial officer and get a search warrant. But it is enough for us to maybe flag somebody's mail."

Flagging addresses for inspection is only the latest tactic the department has used to try to corner dealers, as other methods have yielded few results or are ineffectual here, police say.

"Part of the difficulty we have is because this is such a small town and all of the officers are known to all the people, it's not possible for us to use tactics that work in bigger places. I can't put a wire on (Rettinger) and put a fake beard on him and have him go buy some meth from somebody," Ford said.

Staking out residences to observe patterns and build a case also is hard because of small-town familiarity, Ford said.

In the past two years, undercover officers from the Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs Task Force have come to Haines to make controlled buys. Police requested the SEACAD presence after identifying individuals suspected of selling narcotics, as controlled buys are virtually foolproof in securing convictions, he said.

When undercover officers attempted to buy meth, suspected dealers wouldn't sell.

"I think it's because (the dealers) don't need to take a risk," Ford said. "The people that are dealing drugs in Haines have a clientele that they sell to and that meets their needs. They don't need to take a risk of getting popped, so they just won't sell it to people they don't trust."

Ford also acknowledged the suspected dealers might not have sold because police were targeting the wrong people.

Securing informants or getting concerned citizens to report on their neighbors also is difficult in a small town where everyone knows where everybody else lives and what everybody else drives.

"Folks don't want to be that person that ratted on their friend or their buddy. They don't want to draw attention to themselves," Rettinger said.

Police also have been hearing about prescription medication abuse among teenagers. Rettinger, who worked as an officer in Haines from 2002 to 2004 and then returned in 2011, said he perceives a shift in teens' drugs of choice.

"It seemed like back when I was a police officer before, it was a lot more just marijuana and underage drinking. Now it's a lot more prescription meds and harder stuff. Marijuana is still prevalent -- probably the most commonly used drug in Haines -- but I think there's definitely an influx of especially prescription meds," he said.

Assistant district attorney Amy Williams came to Haines several months ago to give officers a presentation on patrol-level drug investigations, including how to look for drugs during traffic stops, search and seizure laws, and how to get probable cause for a search warrant.

Increased use of harder drugs is "really aggravating," Ford said, because officers aren't seeing much of the physical drugs, just the effects. Ford pointed to a rash of vehicle break-ins and other thefts in June that are typically connected to drug use.

A female minor, recently in jail following theft, vandalism and assault incidents from last fall, also had an "established history of drug abuse," Ford said.

Public health nurse Ty Esposito said she mainly sees teens who admit to using marijuana. Meth and other drugs rarely come up in conversation, she said. Esposito, who runs a weekly confidential advice clinic for teens, said youths don't feel comfortable talking about drugs with her.

"I don't work with that many of them. I wish I did; I wish I had greater access to them, where they knew I was there for them, that they could come talk to me. But they don't," Esposito said.

Rettinger, who taught DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes at the school during his first stint as an officer, said he would like to revive the program. Rettinger said he asked former police chief Gary Lowe about jumpstarting the program, but Lowe "was not a fan" of DARE.

Reviving the program, which involves 10 weeks of one-hour sessions during school hours, would require training, certification and school permission.

Lynn Canal Counseling president Kelly Williamson said she couldn't disclose information on types of drug abuse here because of patient confidentiality reasons.

Chilkat Valley News