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Law Enforcement Agencies Form Partnership In Designated High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

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Sheriffs’ offices in Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties are among the agencies teaming up to form the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program that serves the Gulf Coast.

HIDTA is a federally-funded operation that provides resources to link together local, state, and federal law enforcement to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking. Chris Canova, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Florida, says there are only 28 such programs nationwide.

“To be able to participate in a HIDTA, you have to have a geographic area that has significant drug trafficking, manufacture, distribution, or transportation,” said Canova. “And then you have to have a group of law enforcement agencies – federal, local and state – that are committed to providing resources and aggressively combating that program.”

Getting Escambia and Santa Rosa on board was a priority for the feds. Studies show that in Escambia County there were significant numbers of violent incidents in 2012, which ranked third among Florida counties in 2013.

“And as a result of that, we started trying to examine what the problem was,” Canova said. “When you looked at those violent incidents, we found that there was often a nexus to drug activity – whether it was somebody trying to steal somebody’s drugs, or whether it was somebody trying to protect drugs.”

The main reason HIDTA wanted the counties to join are Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 98, considered to be major drug trafficking routes that run through Escambia and Santa Rosa.

“This should not be a revelation to anyone. The I-10 corridor, as it’s referred to, is the most dangerous highway in the United States,” said Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan.

The thing about I-10, says Morgan, is that it drops you almost into the center of Pensacola. That in turn, according to researchers, provides drug traffickers easy access to downtown.

“The thing is that you can literally do a drop-off and move on in a matter of minutes,” Morgan said. That’s why the drug trade is kind of spiking in Escambia County – because of that. And the latest spike is heroin. That’s something new; not that long ago it was prescription pills.”

ECSO was among a number of agencies that began the application process in 2014 to join HIDTA. Prior to that, Morgan says the office had had a “strange relationships at best” with then-U.S. Attorney Greg Miller and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency dating back to Morgan’s predecessor, Ron McNesby.

“So much so that the U.S. Attorney was refusing to prosecute cases brought by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office [but] not in conjunction with or operated by the DEA,” said Morgan. “When I took office, I meet with the U.S. Attorney at the time, Pamela Marsh, and said, ‘Let’s understand we’re here to put bad people in jail, and to protect our community.’”

This new incarnation of HIDTA is more encompassing, says Morgan, and includes follow-up, drug causes and treatment: in other words, a more “holistic” approach to dealing with the “drug de jour.”

Another major issue with HIDTA appears to be jurisdiction. In which court, state or federal, would a drug case be prosecuted? Acting U.S. Attorney Chris Canova says there are three prosecution authorities involved.

“And they will coordinate when an arrest is made based on what resources and penalties are available for that prosecuting authority,” said Canova. “We sit down and compare that, and what crimes will best suit the activity that’s been investigated. Then we make a consensus agreement on what should happen.”

Besides the Escambia and Santa Rosa Sheriff’s Offices, other local HIDTA members are the Pensacola and Gulf Breeze Police Departments; FDLE, and the State Attorney’s Office.