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Attorney general gets earful from law officers
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Attorney General Mark Herring (second from left) talks with area law enforcement officials and others Thursday in the Martinsville Municipal Building. The session was part of a two-week statewide tour in which Herring is learning about the challenges facing law enforcement and how his office can help. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Friday, March 28, 2014

By BEN R. WILLIAMS - Bulletin Staff Writer

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring discussed area law enforcement issues with local officials Thursday in Martinsville.

Among the many concerns raised were the growing meth problem in the area, prescription drug abuse and the challenges officers face in dealing with jail inmates and others with mental health issues.

The round-table discussion, which took place in city council chambers at the Martinsville Municipal Building, included Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry, Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper, interim Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady, City Manager Leon Towarnicki, Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner, county Commonwealth’s Attorney Andrew Nester, city Commonwealth’s Attorney Clay Gravely, city Director of Human Resources David Brahmstadt, County Administrator Tim Hall and others.

“I wanted to hear directly from law enforcement and local prosecutors who are on the front lines of keeping our neighborhoods and communities safe each and every day about the challenges they face and how I can help them and my office can help them,” Herring said.

The attorney general is on a two-week tour of the commonwealth in which he is attending 22 meetings covering 60 jurisdictions in all regions.

So far in his tour, Herring said, the comment he has heard most across all jurisdictions is a concern for treatment of jail inmates who may be suffering from mental health issues or dealing with substance abuse problems.

“Public safety involves more than just arresting someone and locking them up,” he said. “It also involves mental health issues, substance abuse treatment, outreach and education. It’s a whole range of activities.”

During the roundtable session, Herring spoke infrequently, instead listening to the comments and concerns of community leaders.

One of the first issues mentioned was crystal methamphetamine, which officials said is moving into Martinsville and Henry County at a rapid pace.

“There are two aspects to the meth problem,” Perry said. “One is the financial cost of the cleanup, but the other is the time consumption. In a year’s time, we’ve gone from a problem that was almost nonexistent to over 25 of these ‘shake and bake’ (meth) labs this year.”

Perry said cleaning up the toxic residue from a meth lab not only is costly, but it also takes time that would be better spent serving the community.

Hall described the meth problems in the area as “like a storm system. You see it coming, but there’s nothing you can do.”

Gravely agreed, but added that “from my perspective, the storm that’s already here is very much the prescription drugs, as well as crack cocaine. I’m seeing a lot of prescription-related deaths. The dealing is just as rampant as any other drug, and it’s leading obviously to potential violence any time you’ve got that going on.”

Draper said that in his experience, a large quantity of the prescription drugs on the streets, such as oxycontin and oxycodone, are coming from veterans.

“Evidently,” Draper said, “you can go to the VA (Veterans Administration hospital) and get a big canister of hydrocodone for $5, and they come back and sell it on the street for $10 or $20 a pill.”

Perry said that because most veterans have to travel a significant distance to go to a VA hospital, the hospitals have tried to give then larger supplies of medication so they don’t have to travel as frequently. However, he said, the system is being abused.

Another concern mentioned was that law enforcement officers often are dispatched to deal with people experiencing mental health issues. Although Perry said dealing with someone having mental health concerns is potentially dangerous and a job best suited for law enforcement, it sometimes is difficult for officers to quickly turn that person over to the proper mental health agencies.

“We’re the first responders to them,” Draper said, “but yet we bring them to a jail that has no mental health professional to work with them, and we’re kind of at the mercy of the mental health agency.”

“Our people are not trained as mental health professionals. If we’re going to be mental health facilities, then we need mental health professionals to supervise these people,” he added.

Other concerns mentioned included the high cost localities must pay for medications for jail inmates — including $1,000 a month for two city jail inmates who are HIV positive — and the overcrowding of the Henry County Jail. The jail was designed for 67 inmates yet it currently has just more than 180, Perry said.

“There’s no locality that’s exempt from big-city problems,” Gravely said. “We have, on a smaller scale, a lot of the same problems that the bigger localities are having, and we’re dealing with them with fewer resources.”

Throughout the discussion, Herring took notes and highlighted certain points that he said he would investigate further.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a simple answer to all of the challenges we face,” he said, “but cooperation, communication and coordination act as force multipliers, and different agencies bring different strengths to a problem. When you work together, you’re able to be more effective.”


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