For many folks, the community of illegal drug users, dealers and distributors seems abstract, far away, an underworld on the other side of the tracks.
Yet the larger community feels concrete ramifications of drug-fueled crime along with less obvious but just as destructive effects on the populace.
The Killeen Police Department has made more than 10,000 drug-related arrests over the last 10 years, according to KPD data, which does not separate repeat offenders. Most arrests were for possession or distribution of narcotics and marijuana in various quantities, as well as possession of drug paraphernalia.
“Drugs make good people make bad choices,” said a narcotics detective who works under cover with the Killeen Police Department.
A community problem
Long before making his way to Killeen, early in his career, Killeen Police Chief Charles “Chuck” Kimble joined a narcotics investigation unit because he enjoyed the sense of danger.
“There’s no monotony in narcotics; it’s action-packed,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns, which makes for a fluid working environment that appealed to me.”
As time went on, Kimble started to see the big picture: how illegal drugs affected entire communities.
“It affects the quality of life in a city because it can drain resources and especially affects families and children,” he said. “It drains the healthiness out of a community.”
It also drains the finances of a community. If a person without insurance overdoses in a hospital or has a newborn addicted to drugs, it’s the entire community that pays the bill with higher premiums and health care costs.
Or consider the cost of jailing and parole: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has a $3.3 billion budget, according to the department.
A DEA supervisor said Killeen is like many places.
“Drugs affect all levels of society,” said Dante Sorianello, assistant special agent in charge of the San Antonio District, which includes Central Texas.
High-grade marijuana, methamphetamine and, to lesser degrees, cocaine, crack cocaine, and K2 (or “spice”) are the drugs de jour in Killeen, officials agreed.
A relaxation in marijuana laws and attitudes are apparent around the country, with residents in nine states and the District of Columbia voting to allow the sale of marijuana recreationally and medicinally; another 21 states allow only medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization representing state lawmakers.
Crime ripples outward into the entire community because of the underground economy. Property crimes, prostitution and violent crimes often are traced to a thirst for drugs, Kimble said. He said it’s difficult to pinpoint exact numbers when it comes to how much crime is related to drugs.
“It’s a deep, dark underworld,” he said. “People are trading weapons, stolen property and trading people through sex trafficking.”
The causes of violent crime can be hard to nail down, but Kimble divided it into roughly two categories: impulsive and deliberate. Impulsive violent crimes include domestic incidents or paying someone back who “disrespected” them. Deliberate violent crimes, which also can be drug-related, “are cold and calculated,” Kimble said.
Property crimes, especially, often fuel addictions that can be extremely powerful.
“Even if someone is dead broke, they’re going to find a way to hustle up the money on the streets, that’s how strong the urge is,” Kimble said. “They’ll pull on every car door on a street.”
All three KPD narcotics investigators interviewed in person by the Herald, a lieutenant, detective and sergeant, wanted to remain anonymous because they work under cover.
“We can say that a large percentage of crime has a drug nexus of some kind,” the detective said. “One drug addict could steal a gun to give to his dealer for dope, and the dealer then sells the gun…”
Even impulsive, emotionally fueled domestic crimes can have a drug nexus, she added.
Harker Heights Police Cmdr. Jerry Dugger is commander of the Bell County Sheriff’s Department’s Organized Crime Unit that targets narcotics distributors countywide.
“The benefit is not in drug arrests, but in a decrease in crimes against people,” Dugger said.
He said people addicted to drugs commit crimes trying to fund their habit, but it also is common for distributors to use violence on one another.
“If one distributor finds out another distributor just got a shipment in, they might try to go in and take it,” Dugger said.
The cause of the illegal drug problem in Killeen is simple economics, but solutions remain elusive for law enforcement officials.
“It’s just supply and demand: If people want to get high, there are people who are going to fill that need,” Kimble said. Meanwhile, “supply routes fuel the problem because it makes it cheaper.”
Dugger said some trafficking routes used into and around Killeen are I-35, I-14/U.S. Highway 190 and Highway 195.
The DEA says illegal drug distribution often is run like a business, with producers, wholesalers, distributors and subcontractors.
Meth, in general, is manufactured and distributed by cartels in Mexico, particularly in the state of Michoacán on the country’s southwestern coast. “That’s because of where chemicals used to manufacture meth come into the port,” said Wendell Campbell, DEA Special Agent and public information officer. After the cartels smuggle meth into the U.S. through areas like Nuevo Laredo, it goes to wholesalers and “filters down” from big cities and into communities like Killeen, Campbell said.
At the producer level, there has been a sea of change over the last decade, officials agreed.
In the early 2000s and before, the vast majority of meth was produced domestically in small, home-based cooking labs where a meth powder was produced. Also during that time, the majority of marijuana was grown in Mexico and smuggled north.
That pattern started to change in 2005 when the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act made it more difficult to purchase products with pseudoephedrine, a key component in meth.
”The 2005 law had a tremendous impact,” Dugger said. “I haven’t seen a home lab in a few years.” He estimated a reduction of around 90 percent in the number of home labs, many of which were hazardous with flammable items and toxic gases.
But there’s always a but.
“We’re glad we’ve gotten away from the immediate dangers of a small cook, but organized crime in Mexico stepped up to the plate, and now crystal meth primarily is manufactured in super labs there and brought north by organized criminal groups and cartels, which have their own distribution networks,” Dugger said.
The supply of marijuana also changed.
“Now it’s often domestic,” Dugger said, like meth used to be. He said California and the Northeast U.S. are the areas credited with most production.
Smugglers are showing ever-increasing creativity, aiming to get illegal drugs into the hands of people demanding them. In addition to “the old-fashioned way” of driving it around the country, smugglers also are using mail and package carriers, Dugger said.
Regardless of how it gets to Bell County, Dugger said it’s not unusual for the crime unit to intercept 5- and 10-pound shipments.
Being immersed in the drug underworld can be wearying for officers, especially with no end in sight.
“We do what we can, but it can be discouraging,” Kimble said. “But when you choose to do police work, you know you’re going to help who you can, but you also know that for every person arrested for dealing drugs, five more are ready to step up. People want to make a fast dollar, or if they’re an addict, it might be all they know.”
KPD data indicates that two misdemeanor offenses account for about half of the department’s 10,000 arrests.
By far the most common offense was possession of marijuana under 2 ounces, with more than 3,500 arrests over 10 years. Coming in second is possession of drug paraphernalia, with more than 1,400 arrests.
Marijuana is popular, but the narcotics detective said police are seeing an increase in meth because it is being mass-produced, which leads to cheaper prices for the user.
From January to April 2018, Killeen police made around 35 arrests for possession of a controlled substance, penalty group 1, which includes narcotics like methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin, according to KPD data.
“We’re even seeing people switch from crack to meth because it’s cheaper,” the narcotics detective said.
The lieutenant said the KPD narcotics unit is “mission-driven,” and does not practice drug enforcement based on neighborhoods or parts of town.
The detective agreed. “It’s very fluid: we can start out over here and end up over there.”
At the same time, the lieutenant said the size of the city’s narcotics force has decreased, but that a trend toward fewer detectives is seen in police departments nationwide.
“We just have to do more with what we have,” the lieutenant said. “We focus on the most viable threat. By focusing on distributors, we’re trying to cut the head off the snake.”
It has been busy at the county level, also.
The Organized Crime Unit, formerly the Central Texas Narcotics Task Force, is an eight-man unit based in Belton and formed in 2010 by former Bell County Sheriff Dan Smith, who wanted to fight crime across municipal boundaries.
“Criminals don’t respect borders,” said Dugger, the unit’s commander.
The unit includes at least one officer from departments in Killeen, Harker Heights, Copperas Cove, Temple and Belton. Members are chosen by their own agencies, but generally are experienced narcotics investigators, Dugger said. He has been with the Harker Heights Police Department for the entirety of his 29-year career, joining the Task Force in 2000 as an agent.
“Communication (between local police departments) is an enormous part of it,” Dugger said. Team members are intimately familiar with drugs in their cities, and they can share intelligence with members from other cities to spot trends. “The OCU has a broad scope of investigation to include any crime where criminals operate in an organized fashion, but narcotics are the bulk of what we do,” he said.
The unit operates in Killeen and surrounding areas, working with the local departments and also independently.
“We target distributors who make a living dealing drugs, not end-users, so we can really make a difference,” Dugger said. Just two weeks ago they netted a distributor with 1,000 grams of meth.
At a national level, Sorianello said DEA agents coordinate with local law enforcement, including KPD, and also has agents working on independent investigations “at a different level.”
The DEA, like the Organized Crime Unit, does not specifically target drug users or addicts, but works with local agencies to target anyone selling drugs.
“We want to know what (local law enforcement) see as their threats, and we find common ground so we can support each other,” Sorianello said. “Working together we can do great things.”
The DEA often uses a task force concept when it comes to enforcement. “We have one or two agents working with state or local officers to target a trafficking cell, so we can find out who the distributor is and focus on them,” Campbell said. “We don’t exist in a vacuum — we have to work with local partners. If we know 3 kilos are going to be hitting the ground in Killeen, we’ll work with (KPD) in an informal task force.”
The DEA then tries to connect the dots to get to the wholesalers, Campbell said. “When we have a case at a local level we try to exploit it and follow it all the way to Mexico.”
Meth and marijuana
Meth and marijuana, the two most common drugs in Killeen, have different impacts on a community.
Campbell said meth poses the number one drug threat to Central Texas.
“It leaves such a big footprint on a community,” he said.
Kimble agreed: “Meth is the drug of choice.”
It’s also an extremely dangerous drug.
“The one striking thing about meth is how rapidly it destroys the body,” Kimble said. “You can almost see the life being drained out of the person. It’s full of chemicals and poisons, and it will kill you.”
It can wreak havoc on families.
“When someone is addicted to meth, nothing else matters,” Kimble said. “You can’t take care of others, or children, because you can barely take care of yourself. It’s an addiction so powerful that an addict will do almost anything, anything, to get that next high.”
Medics also have to learn how to deal with a person on meth.
“Unpredictable behavior, paranoia, irritability, and altered mental status are common,” said James Schambers, the Killeen Fire Department deputy chief who supervises the department’s EMS unit.
Marijuana is a concern, also, but not because of the potential for overdose.
“An overdose of marijuana is dissimilar to other drugs because marijuana consumption is not life threatening,” Schambers said, adding that problems are caused when marijuana is mixed with other drugs.
The federal National Institute on Drug Abuse tracks drug use in the nation, and its studies show an increase in emergency room visits related to marijuana.
“Marijuana has changed; the potency has skyrocketed,” Dugger said. “And it’s popular with the young demographic in Killeen.”
The sergeant said the new marijuana, often called “Kush,” is “engineered to be more powerful.”
“The old ‘ditch weed’ was between 20 and 40 percent THC, and now it can be as high as 70 to 80 percent,” he said.
As voters around the nation cast their ballots in favor of legalization, it might be tempting to disregard marijuana as dangerous.
“It definitely has a negative effect on the body and mind,” the sergeant said.
What about opioids?
Opioids, including prescription and illicit opioids, are to blame for than 66 percent of the almost 64,000 Americans who died of a drug overdose in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a 2018 news release,
The most recent data from the Texas Department of Health and Human Services shows that 670 Texans died in 2015 from opioids, whether prescribed or illegal, and excluding heroin. By contrast, department data shows that in 2000, fewer than 200 people died from opioids in the state, which is a 235 percent increase.
“The abuse of prescribed opioid analgesics and availability of illegal narcotics always have been a problem,” Schambers said.
He said all his medics are trained to recognize and treat an opioid overdose, and all ambulances and first response vehicles carry Narcan, an emergency drug used to save the life of someone overdosing on an opioid.
Kimble said the city has not been hit hard by the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation.
“Our officers don’t carry (Narcan) because we’re not seeing much of it,” he said.
Kimble met recently with fire department and EMS leadership to discuss whether to add Narcan to officers’ arsenals like the Bell County Sheriff’s Department did earlier this month.
“It’s out there, but just not in high enough amounts to justify the cost of purchase and maintenance,” Kimble said. “But we’re continually evaluating and looking for any changes.”
Dugger said areas north of Waco are facing a bigger fight against opioids than Bell County.
“We’re fortunate we’re not dealing with opioids a lot here,” Dugger said.
Schambers said the department does its best to help those in need.
“Drug abuse is not an individual problem, but a community concern,” Schambers said.
Kimble agreed, saying it’s likely that most people know someone battling drug addiction.
“It’s a hard conversation to have with someone, but if you suspect a friend or family member has an addiction, talk about it and try to get through it together.”