OSWEGO — A multiyear push to designate Oswego County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area came to fruition this week, opening the door for federal resources to be dispatched to the region to combat the opioid epidemic and disrupt drug distribution networks.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer announced the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) designation Tuesday, saying it would provide much needed crime fighting resources to the area to combat a “serious spike in drug trafficking and overdose deaths in recent years.” Federal, state and local officials announced a push for the designation last July, and at the time noted it would address the supply of drugs and fund efforts to reduce demand.
The HIDTA program is aimed at reducing drug trafficking and production in the U.S. by facilitating cooperation among law enforcement agencies and sharing information and intelligence, in addition to supporting coordinated law enforcement strategies that reduce the supply of illegal drugs.
“Like so many communities in upstate New York, Oswego County has been devastated by the scourge of drug trafficking and opioids,” Schumer said in a press release. “While local law enforcement has been working diligently to combat the opioid epidemic on the ground, they need more federal support to curb this crisis.”
Local, state and federal leaders say drugs and overdose deaths have negatively affected the health and wellbeing of Oswego County residents. The HIDTA designation would bolster coordination efforts among federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, according to Schumer, and provide the county with equipment, technology and other resources to combat the opioid epidemic.
The HIDTA designation, according to Schumer, would provide Oswego County law enforcement with additional manpower and intelligence to thwart those trafficking drugs in and around central New York. He said the designation would specifically provide the county with the ability to purchase key equipment to both help protect officers and increase their ability to combat drug trafficking at the ground level.
A coalition of local law enforcement agencies, including the county District Attorney’s Office, Oswego Police Department, county Sheriff’s Office, SUNY Oswego police and the Oswego County Drug Task Force (OCDTF), petitioned the federal government for the designation last year.
Officials said the designation would provide local law enforcement with the tools necessary to battle the opioid epidemic and the distribution of other drugs in central New York. More than 25 of New York’s 62 counties — including nearby Jefferson, Onondaga, St. Lawrence and Monroe counties — previously received the HIDTA designation.
Under the designation, Oswego County will join the New York/New Jersey HIDTA — one of 28 HIDTAs nationwide.
Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, and Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, both joined Schumer in advocating for the designation over the past year after local law enforcement petitioned the federal government and applauded the announcement this week. The trio each wrote to the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to lobby for the designation.
“Oswego County faces significant challenges related to combating drug abuse and trafficking,” Katko said in a statement Wednesday, noting the designation would provide significant federal resources. “The county’s central location makes it a natural transportation route for illicit substances being trafficked to and from Canada, and from larger cities like New York.”
Katko said the OCDTF has done “tremendous work locally to raise awareness of the drug epidemic plaguing Oswego County,” adding the “important designation” would help curb drug trafficking in local communities.
Brindisi, who crafted the Fentanyl Sanctions Act that would impose sanctions on foreign manufacturers and provide further funding for law enforcement and intelligence agencies, said the designation would bring much needed federal assistance to the area.
“Our communities have been ripped apart by the opioid epidemic and the illicit drug use that comes with it,” Brindisi said, adding he is proud to support the measure and the county’s law enforcement efforts.
Oswego Police Chief Tory DeCaire said his department has been an active member in the OCDTF for several years and as part of the task force’s joint operations, it would be “a welcome relief to get some federal assistance to help offset the expenses of the individual agencies who participate in the task force as well as being able to devote additional resources to help deal with an ever increasing issue in our community.”
DeCaire said recent conversations between himself and other participating agencies have taken place to discuss plans to put the assistance to the best use for the community.
“Plans are still in the works and I look forward to the continued partnership of all the involved agencies to help make a positive impact for the city of Oswego and surrounding areas,” the police chief said.
Oswego County Sheriff Don Hilton, who previously worked with the HIDTA program, called the designation “great,” and said pushing for the designation was a priority upon becoming sheriff in January. Hilton said in addition to possibly providing the funding to hire more staff, becoming a HIDTA could provide enhanced technology and tie local agencies into state and national databases.
“It’s going to be a great resource for us, and not just us at the sheriff’s department, but law enforcement county wide,” the sheriff said, noting it could provide “high end technology that (local law enforcement) just doesn’t have access to” at the moment. “It will be very beneficial to all of us.”
District Attorney Greg Oakes said last year the HIDTA designation would allow for a more coordinated effort between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to detect and investigate drug trafficking networks. Oakes at the time said there was a coordinated, bipartisan effort to lobby for the designation, saying it was “a lot of people from both sides of the aisle coming together.”
Local agencies have been coordinating for years as the OCDTF. Oakes said those efforts have been successful and the HIDTA designation could help officials “keep building on that success.” Oakes noted at the time a series of other counties along New York’s northern border with Canada are HIDTA counties.
Hilton also noted Wednesday that Oswego County was previously “on an island,” with most of the surrounding counties already designated HIDTAs.
Created by Congress with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 and administered by the ONDCP, the HIDTA program provides assistance to law enforcement agencies operating in areas determined to be critical drug trafficking regions in the United States, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Schumer said treatment efforts are also an important part of the solution to the opioid epidemic, and noted Oswego County’s HIDTA designation would help strengthen treatment access by facilitating critical partnerships between public health agencies.
ONDCP and HIDTA grant funds are being used across the country for local governments and public health officials to improve overdose reporting in order to mobilize public health responses, including the purchase of and education on Naloxone kits.