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Police take a suspect into custody as part of a drug sweep in Saranac Lake.  This strategy has been used for decades to reduce drug-related crime in the North Country. Photo: Chris Knight
Police take a suspect into custody as part of a drug sweep in Saranac Lake. This strategy has been used for decades to reduce drug-related crime in the North Country. Photo: Chris Knight

North Country drug war continues, despite debate

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This year, North Country Public Radio is looking in-depth at America's 40 year era of mass incarceration - a period of American history that saw the massive growth of prisons around the US, and here in our region. This week, we're focusing on how those policies changed the North Country.

A big part of the rising inmate population has stemmed from the war on drugs. Under state and Federal law, millions of felons have spent much longer sentences behind bars.

That's starting to change. In 2009, New York state reformed the Rockefeller drug laws. As a result, the number of drug offenders behind bars in New York's has dropped by two-thirds.

Despite state and national debate, however, many local and state law enforcement agencies still use many of the same tough-on-crime strategies that have shaped America's drug war for decades.

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Reported by

Chris Knight
Adirondack Correspondent

It’s just after 7 a.m.  A group of 40 police, state troopers, county sheriff’s deputies and other local, state and federal law-enforcement agents are crammed inside the small Saranac Lake police station. 

Bruce Nason, Saranac Lake’s police chief, leads a briefing on a planned roundup of suspected drug dealers in the village.

“We have, I think, 18 targets. The Watertown Police Department picked up one last night. This board over here is so we can keep track of who’s been arrested. We anticipate getting 17.”

Saranac Lake patrolman Casey Reardon climbs into the driver’s seat of an unmarked Mercury Grand Marquis parked in front of the police station. 

He slides a Bushmaster patrol rifle, which looks like an M-16, along the console between our seats.

“These guys were involved in an armed confrontation the other night, with two shotguns and a couple baseball bats,” Reardon says.  “I’ll just have you with me. We’ll stay outside or try to stay on the backside for the most part for right now.”

Reardon's car leads a convoy of three vehicles from the police station to an apartment house on a neighborhood street where police are looking for two suspects.

“This is it Reardon,” says.

We park along the street, and Reardon gets out. Carrying the rifle, he hustles quietly up the driveway with four other members of his team.

The sweep comes up empty.

Members of the Saranac Lake Police Department discuss the progress a series of drug raids around the village. From left are Patrolman Aaron Donaldson, Patrolwoman Reyanin Peck, Patrolman James Joyce, Sgt. Bill Cote and Patrolman Jason Swain. Photo:  Chris Knight, courtesy <em>Adirondack Daily Enterprise</em>
Members of the Saranac Lake Police Department discuss the progress a series of drug raids around the village. From left are Patrolman Aaron Donaldson, Patrolwoman Reyanin Peck, Patrolman James Joyce, Sgt. Bill Cote and Patrolman Jason Swain. Photo: Chris Knight, courtesy Adirondack Daily Enterprise
"The homeowners were there, but the people we were looking for weren't," Reardon says. "We didn't find anything, so we're going to keep checking locations we think they might be at."

As Reardon leads his team to the next stop, he talks about the drug problem here in Saranac Lake.

"It's an epidemic," he said. "Anybody that realizes the potential for selling their scripts (prescriptions) or narcotics in Saranac Lake - a lot of people have taken advantage of it. Some of these pills sell for 40 to 50 dollars apiece easily, and as high as 100, and that's just for one.

Sweeps like this are a common tactic for police in the North Country and around the US — and have been for decades.

Law enforcement agencies acknowledge that this kind of effort will never eliminate the drug problem.

But Nason, Saranac Lake’s chief, says they are effective at curtailing drug-related crime.

"We have noticed that when we are able to be more proactive, like we were this last roundup, we minimize the other crimes related to substance use and abuse," he said. "In that aspect, I'd say yes, we're making progress."

Even as many critics have called for a phase-out of America's drug war, rural America has seen an increase in drugs and drug enforcement, thanks in part to the spread of prescription drugs, heroin and crystal meth.

Eric Proulx is chief  of police in Tupper Lake.

"People who use narcotics, cocaine - I've dealt with a lot of people that get violent on these drugs when they use them," Proulx said. "If we're locking up the people that are using these drugs, they're not continuing to be violent out in the community, causing other crimes: hurting people, stealing their property, destroying their property.”

The sweep in Saranac Lake leads eventually to a run-down apartment building on the village's main street.  While the cops search the building, a neighbor who declines to give his name, watches from across the street.

"There's a lot of traffic in and out: Five, 10, 15 minute stops, then they're gone," Dave says. "They get more traffic in there than McDonald's right now. It's just ridiculous."

The search here turns up six ounces of heroin, along with crack cocaine, crystal meth and other drugs.

When this day is over, police in Saranac Lake will have put 18 people behind bars.

So is this kind of round-up helping?  

US Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reforms to drug war era sentencing policies. Photo: DOJ
US Attorney General Eric Holder has called for reforms to drug war era sentencing policies. Photo: DOJ
Earlier this year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder questioned the effectiveness of sending so many people to prison.

He ordered federal prosecutors to stop seeking maximum sentences for some low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

"We cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation," Holder said.

This new skepticism is shared even by some critics who were once part of the drug war.   

Robert King is a former district attorney from Rochester who spends part of each year in the North Country.  He says drug war era laws and crackdowns just didn't work. 

"Obviously the strategies we've been using in this country to discourage drug use and drug sale have not been terribly successful. Maybe it's a behavior that it doesn't matter how many laws you have, people are going to do what people do. But I think the intentions were good; whether or not they've achieved the results I'd say that they have not."

Law-enforcement officials in the region acknowledge there’s a big shift in the war on drugs. There's even talk of legalizing some substances, including marijuana.

But Chief Nason says drug roundups and tough narcotics enforcement will go on.

"On the national level, that debate that's going on isn't going to affect what we do to minimize the impact to our community and make this place as safe as possible," Nason said.

On the national level, that debate that's going on isn't going to affect what we do to minimize the impact to our community and make this place as safe as possible
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne says the new debate over drug policy means law enforcement agencies in the North Country have to be even more vigilant. 

He says the easing of drug sentencing laws in New York has actually driven more drug dealers and gangs from urban areas to expand their networks .

"Since the sentence is no longer 25 years, the pleas that they are getting are substantially reduced," he said. "Their mindset is, 'It's no big deal anymore with trafficking heroin and cocaine. So if I can make three or four times the profit by driving five hours upstate, I'm a fool not to drive five hours upstate.'"

Many police do acknowledge that tough drug enforcement hasn't been a silver bullet.  On the way back to the station in Saranac Lake officer Reardon says these arrests will help in the short term.  But drugs will find a way back into the community.

"It's a revolving door. It's going to be the same problem. We'll have the same episode playing out four, five, six months from now with another roundup. Until something's done about the bigger problems, we're always going to have this kind of situation."

Special thanks to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise for help with our Prison Time Media Project. Thanks in particular to Enterprise reporter Chris Knight

Support for the Prison Time Media Project is provided by the Prospect Hill Foundation, the David Rockefeller Fund, and the NY Council for the Humanities. Special assistance provided by the Adirondack Foundation. Hear more from the series at prisontime.org.

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