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DA's Report Shows 'Success' of Investigating OD Deaths as Ccrime Scenes, 'Potential&

In Knox County, every drug-related death is still a preventable tragedy.

But now many also present opportunities to level a homicide charge at those deemed responsible, to “try to hold the drug dealers accountable for their crimes,” said District Attorney General Charme Allen.

In 2017 there were 293 drug-related deathscountywide — 33 percent more than in 2016. From those fatal overdoses, the Drug Related Death Task Force, which Allen spearheaded, opened 172 homicide investigations — and those initial investigations led to an additional 259 investigations.

Ultimately, more than 100 people were charged with felony drug offenses out of those 259 investigations.

“We have been able to prosecute cases that we would never have been able to prosecute before,” Allen said.

The multi-agency task force, funded in part with federal money through Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, “was an all-hands-on-deck approach — anything we could think of to curb the tide” of overdoses.

Overdose sites treated as crime scenes

Before the task force was formed last year, many law enforcement agencies didn’t treat overdose deaths as criminal investigations unless there were other circumstances, although they were always investigated as deaths by the Knox County Regional Forensic Center. After the formation of the task force, the locations of fatal drug overdoses routinely became crime scenes, with task force members and detectives immediately on the scene collecting evidence — such as cell phones — to track down drug dealers working in the county.

So far, all those cases investigated have been Knoxville Police Department cases, Allen said, but she thinks the model is “ideal” for extending to other agencies, though the manpower may be a concern: Allen said her office’s Felony Drug Unit caseload has increased by 118 percent since the implementation of the task force.

“You can imagine how much more potential there is,” Allen said. “It’s wonderful as far as the war on drugs, but it’s very difficult on my staff.”

Though the investigations so far all have been KPD cases, other agencies benefit, she added. The task force — which also includes the Appalachia HIDTA, Knox County Regional Forensic Center, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Knoxville Police Department and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — shares data among agencies with the universal goal of shutting down suppliers of drugs and the places they deal their wares.

Overdose prevention could start with addicts in jail

But that data, released in a report Wednesday morning, also showed that among nearly half of Knox County’s 2017 overdose deaths, there were chances to intervene — through the criminal justice system itself.

In both 2017 and 2016, 45 percent of those who fatally overdosed had a Knox County arrest record within the past five years. Last year, 21 percent of people who fatally overdosed died within six months of their release from jail — up from 15 percent in 2016. More than a quarter of people who fatally overdosed died within a year of their release from Knox County jail.

For most, the data showed, these were short-term stays: seven days or less.

Meanwhile, of the overdose cases law enforcement responded to from January to April 2018, 63 people had upcoming court dates — in many cases, scheduled for weeks or even days after the overdose. In the same time frame, 95 of the people who fatally overdosed were on probation.

“We didn’t set out to gather that data; we set out to prosecute drug dealers,” Allen said. “But what became apparent very quickly is that there’s overlap” between the criminal justice system and people who are addicted.

Though the criminal justice system wasn’t designed to treat addiction, the data in Wednesday’s report, she said, shows that incarceration alone can’t eradicate addiction — and the accompanying crimes — in the community.

Allen thinks it’s worth looking at ways to reach people with treatment and resources, including a plan after leaving jail, while they’re still incarcerated.

“We’re obviously not experts in treatment, but we do want to highlight that the potential for partnership is there,” Allen said. “It’s borne out that we are dealing with the same people.”

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