Roanoke PD on frontlines of fatal overdoses

How police work to take drugs off the street
Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 3:27 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Overdoses and their deadly consequences are on track to claim thousands of lives again this year. In the first 3 months of 2023, nearly 700 people in Virginia died of overdose, according to new data from the state.

Roanoke Police are on the frontlines pulling drugs off the street, with investigators like Officer Rob Allen visiting the department’s evidence room regularly with new substances they discovered during their shift.

During Here @ Home’s visit to the station, Officer Allen had just returned from a call with a little baggy that had crystalized flakes inside.

“Yeah, it was in the bin that they put the donation in. They brought the pants out and that was sitting in the back pocket,” Officer Allen said.

Allen believed the drug inside was crystal meth. However, since it was found at a nearby donation center inside of donated clothes, it would not be used as part of any investigation. Instead, Allen weighed the baggy, cataloged its details, and dropped it off in an evidence box where it would eventually be incinerated.

This routine is very familiar to Roanoke Police officers. Allen said he brings drugs into the station about once a week.

Currently the drugs of choice appear to be meth and heroin, Lt. Kenny Sauls said.

Lt. Sauls has been with the force for more than two decades. In the last five years, those two drugs have been a part of a scary trend, he said.

“People are buying things and they don’t know where it comes from,” Lt. Sauls said. “They have no idea what’s in it. And then they’re wondering why they’re in the hospital and they’ve overdosed.”

The culprit – fentanyl.

“In 2022, 142 overdoses, 35 were fatal. Only one didn’t have Fentanyl in their system. So it’s the fentanyl; it’s killing people at a rate we don’t want,” Lt. Sauls said.

Those are just the numbers for the Star City.

The Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts track those cases, saying opioids like fentanyl are responsible for about half of all overdose deaths.

“So while our emergency department visits are about the same way over the last few years, we are continuing to see increases in the number of fatal and the rate of fatal overdoses,” Health District Director Dr. Cynthia Morrow said.

Data from the state medical examiner shows fentanyl has been connected to more and more overdose deaths in the last 15 years. In 2022, it contributed to 75 percent of all overdose fatalities and most of the fentanyl in those cases was illicitly produced.

Roanoke is getting some help to combat the crisis.

Leaders are expecting $750,000 dollars to come to the Roanoke Valley from recent opioid settlements. But that money won’t change things overnight.

“We’re just at the very beginning of that funding getting to us. And this is going to be a long goal that this is going to be a marathon, not a race,” Dr. Morrow said.

Roanoke Police are running a marathon of their own.

“Every day, we are trying to get some drug charges,” Lt. Sauls said. “It may not be what we want every day, but we’re getting something off the street.”

Another challenge for the department is testing the drugs to identify the substances.

“You know, we can’t field test like we used to, out of fear of the fentanyl piece. You know, you hear stories across the country, where officers go onto traffic stops, or something had been exposed to that,” Lt. Sauls said.

Instead, police send the drugs off to a state lab for testing, which could take months. That delays investigations and potentially leads to more people dying.

“We have to wait for these results to come back before we can help this person or prevent something bad happening to them,” Lt. Sauls said.

So bit by bit investigators, like Officer Allen, work to take what they can off the streets.

“Unfortunately, it’s part of what we have to do,” Officer Allen said.

But it is not just about slapping on a drug charge.

“We want to help. It’s not about just putting people in jail all the time,” Lt. Sauls said.

Roanoke’s officers will stay focused on the fight to keep people alive, Lt. Sauls said, all while waiting for more resources to come their way.