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Drug trafficking designation would bring federal dollars to New London

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Officials from New London County are in the beginning stages of petitioning to become a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area County, and an expert thinks they have a good chance of succeeding.

The designation, which has to be approved by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, would bring federal dollars and an organized federal agency effort to the county, according to Robert Lawlor Jr., a drug intelligence officer with the office's Connecticut branch.

Lawlor said typically, one police chief in any given county will be the point of contact who works with others in the county to ensure criteria for the designation are met.

In New London County, that person is Groton Town Police Chief Louis Fusaro Jr.

Fusaro said he initiated the process in part because departments have been putting additional manpower and hours toward investigations since the recent spike in heroin-related overdoses, but haven't had any additional money come in.

"We all understand this is an issue that's affecting the community, affecting families," he said. "Any resources to fight it are certainly welcome. Everybody would agree with that."

According to Lawlor, there are four criteria a county must meet to be considered a high-intensity trafficking area: The area must be a center of illegal drug production, importation or distribution; it must have a task force with local, state, federal or tribal agencies working together to combat drugs; the drug problem needs to be significantly or harmfully impacting the area; and there must be evidence the area needs an increase in federal resources to successfully combat the problem.

"In my experience in talking to people about this, a lot of the rest of eastern Connecticut and bordering towns in Rhode Island will come into the greater New London area to either pick up their drugs or to get drugs to bring back to their area to resell," Lawlor said. "I can't say for certain that New London County will eventually get designated, but in my opinion and I think in the opinion of most, that area does fit the criteria and the problem is so big that they do need help."

He said he believes that officials need to have their petition filed by April and that a decision could come as soon as the end of this year.

Three Connecticut counties — Fairfield, Hartford and New Haven — already have the designation, Lawlor said. About 10 other counties are included in the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

Throughout the country, 28 such areas, commonly called HIDTA for short, cover about 17 percent of all counties and just more than 60 percent of the population.

In short, Lawlor said, the designation and the funding it brings allow law enforcement organizations at all levels to more effectively work together.

"Drug cases are very complex at times, especially if you want to have a good case," Lawlor said. "It takes a lot of man hours and funding for things like surveillance and drug buys to get into houses. There's a lot of expense that I don't think the general public realizes."

He said other work includes having analysts try to find connections among those who are arrested and having IT people work with phone data to try to uncover networks that may be operating in an area.

"Those things are all things HIDTA tries to help with, especially when it comes to identifying not just one person but several layers of an organization or a whole organization," Lawlor said.

Identifying the whole organization is key, he said, especially because big-time drug suppliers easily can replace those who are running the drugs.

For example, he said, if a New London police officer pulled a car over, developed probable cause to search the car and discovered a kilogram of heroin, he or she should work to learn what its beginning and end destinations were.

"If you just stop at that point and don't ask those questions, those are all pieces of the puzzle you're not connecting — you end up with just a puzzle piece," Lawlor said. "At HIDTA what we're trying to do is get officers to realize that while, yes, you did an awesome job getting a kilo of heroin off the streets, there's a bigger picture and you need to go further."

In the hypothetical situation, Lawlor said, if the officer asked the right questions and learned the heroin had come from the Bronx, HIDTA would act as a liaison between task forces in each area so they can work to get the major sources of drugs out of the New York area.

"All the information they would be sharing helps build their cases so (the offenders) will get significant time in jail," he said. "But when you stop at one traffic stop, you lose that whole puzzle."

Fusaro emphasized that he's willing to ask the questions about becoming a HIDTA County, but he's far from the only one working on combating heroin use in the region.

"Law enforcement departments and politicians in this area recognize that we can accomplish a lot if we work together," Fusaro said. "This is just one of those things that may, there's no guarantee, but may be another avenue that can help us in addressing this continuing issue."

l.boyle@theday.com

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