Fowler Police Chief Jeffrey Worth spoke at the Monday Board of Trustees meeting about the rise of drug-related criminal activities in town and across the Arkansas Valley. Worth cited state legislation passed in May that will soon "de-felonize" simple drug possession crimes, reducing simple possession of substances such as cocaine, meth amphetamine and heroine a misdemeanor.
Mayor Nathan Shultz referenced rising drug crimes around the valley and said that this was not a problem unique to Fowler. Worth echoed his sentiments and even took them further, saying that the increase in drug crimes is an "American problem."
"The felony filings in Otero County (the 16th Judicial District) used to be around 80 a year," said Shultz. "Now we're breaking 300 each year. The biggest mistake legislation made when they made all drug cases non felonies, is almost all substance abuse treatment was paid for by the felony drug search (something), so they unfunded all substance abuse treatment for the state."
The legislation, HB19-1263, was signed by Governor Jared Polis on May 28 and is scheduled to take effect March 1, 2020. On that date district attorneys statewide will be prohibited from charging or prosecuting persons "pursuant to this section for any minuscule, residual, or unusable amount of a controlled substance that may be present in a used hypodermic needle or syringe, or other drug paraphernalia," as stated in the Act's text.
The police chief warned that with drug users getting out of jail sooner thanks to the legislation slated to take effect next year, burglaries and like-crime should be expected to increase.
Worth brought a box of evidence from recent cases to the Monday meeting to showcase what he and his officers have been dealing with just over the last month or so. He showed plastic bags holding crystalized meth amphetamine, heroine pipes and paraphernalia to the board of trustees. At one point he took a club with nails driven into it from the box. It appeared to have been spray painted black, with the nails coiled around it from the center outward.
The chief explained how one of his officers had come upon the bludgeoning weapon. On Saturday at 1:28 a.m., his officer approached a suspicious vehicle parked in the side lot of Loaf 'N Jug.
"As he approaches the driver he got this meth, the guy had a warrant out of Crowley County for burglary (and) Felony warrants. He had this in his hand on the side while he's talking to my officer, hiding it," said Worth, holding the club behind him. "Under his leg he had this (a knife) ready to go. He's not a resident from here, but they come here to do drug deals in our business parking lots."
Worth listed a series of cases he's seen recently. Most of them involved persons with felony warrants who were considered armed and dangerous, and most involved possession of meth and/or heroine.
He reviewed a very recent case that occurred on Sunday. Worth had just gotten back into town after visiting his wife. He noticed emergency lights and sirens on his block as he was getting home and, naturally, he went to investigate.
There had been a domestic dispute, he said, but when officers got a warrant to search the house they found the place in a mess. A young girl was found on scene and was found to have both meth amphetamine and heroine in her system.
"The baby had meth and heroine in its system and it was moving like somebody was on meth," said Worth. "What adult people do on meth amphetamine is that there's a thing called meth bugs, and they think there's bugs in their skin and they gotta' scratch, scratch, scratch. This is what this baby was doing — look at those pictures."
Police found meth and heroine in the house, including a needle filled with heroine on the floor where the kids were walking, said Worth.
"My whole point is we have an emergency," Worth said. "And again, it's not a Fowler emergency. This is an (American emergency) and I over-estimated the issues that are going on."
Worth was not trying to monger fear, however, and he had a solution in mind. For starters, Worth said his department would benefit from having another officer. Town Administrator Kelly Lotrich said that they do have it in the budget to bring another person on, although the board and Worth would need to determine if it would be a full-time position or part-time, and how they would approach pay.
But what Worth got excited about was the idea of a valley-wide task force dedicated to hunting down illicit drugs.
"Where I come from we had a task force. Everybody throws an officer in the task force, so you have a whole team, and you work the whole county," said Worth.
The plan would require cooperation from all of the law enforcement agencies in Otero County, but Worth was adamant that there are ways to get a grasp on the drug situation.
Trustee Andy Lotrich said that the police force cannot handle everything itself and that responsibility falls on the community to watch each other's backs.
"What we've failed to do as a community is to come together in order to do this," said Lotrich. "Our drug programs have been cut. Where are our faith-based leaders? Why don't we have any AA, NA programs here in this community? When we start looking at all of our neighborhood watches, where are we helping out our neighbors?
"We're watching them, but why aren't we assisting? Why aren't we there? We see something happening next door, why aren't we lending a helping hand? Whenever we start looking at the problem, I hope we remember that we're looking in a mirror. Because it has to come back on us to do so."
Lotrich also said the courts are overrun and underfunded.
"When you actually look at what we need to be doing ourselves, it's called working together to be able to solve this problem because it is an American situation that we're dealing with," said Lotrich.