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Cumberland and Salem counties in N.J. join regional fight to stop drug trafficking

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Two counties in South Jersey are joining their neighbors in the Philadelphia region to interrupt drug trafficking.

Cumberland and Salem counties are the latest jurisdictions to be added to the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, or HIDTA. They join at a time when the synthetic opioid fentanyl is driving the number of drug overdose deaths to record levels across the country.

“Fentanyl is public enemy number one,” said Lt. Steven Ingram, commander of the HIDTA task force within the Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office. “We have never seen a drug that has caused so much death before fentanyl.”

New Jersey saw a one percent increase in the number of suspected drug overdose deaths in 2021. As of Monday, the state reported 1,650 suspected deaths for 2022.

Citing recent research that indicates fentanyl poisoning as the leading cause of death for ages 18-45, Ingram said the addition of Cumberland and Salem counties to HIDTA is “extremely beneficial.”

“Having the connectivity with our county partners who are neighboring us to the south, to the north, and to the east helps us work more efficiently to address that threat,” he said.

Salem County Prosecutor Kristen Telsey called being in the program “critical,” adding that her county “tends to not have as many resources” as other parts of the state.

“We are a gateway to the entire Northeast corridor,” she said. “To have these resources come to Salem County will be a tremendous asset in being able to stem the tide of overdose, addiction, drug trafficking, and the related violence.”

A similar sentiment was expressed by Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, in a news release.

“We look forward to working with the [Drug Enforcement Administration] as a force multiplier in this endeavor,” she said.

HIDTA (pronounced high-tah) was created through the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 to disrupt drug trafficking and money laundering. There are more than 30 HIDTA designated areas, located across 50 states, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. It’s administered by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy within the White House.

The announcement of Cumberland and Salem counties being added to the program was made earlier this month. They will join Atlantic, Camden, and Gloucester counties in New Jersey, along with Southeastern Pennsylvania and Northern Delaware as part of HIDTA’s Liberty Mid-Atlantic Region. Mercer County is part of the New York/New Jersey HIDTA region.

According to preliminary numbers from last year, law enforcement agencies in the program seized $59.4 million in drugs and cash, disrupted or dismantled 95 drug trafficking and money laundering organizations, arrested 798 fugitives, and seized 595 firearms.

The program does three things: facilitates cooperation between local, state, federal and tribal agencies to investigate drug trafficking organizations and associated money laundering and violence; improves intelligence gathering, analysis and sharing among agencies to dismantle or disrupt drug trafficking; and provides resources to agencies that they would not normally receive.

“There’s a lot of variation in what they do depending on the needs of that specific area and the funding resources,” said Keith Taylor, an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who worked in law enforcement in New York City for more than two decades. “Some of them use that platform as a way for distributing funds, supporting local efforts [for] prevention programs in various aspects, as well as the law enforcement interdiction aspect.”

Taylor also was part of the program during his time as assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Corrections. His focus was to ensure that intelligence used in the New York/New Jersey region were reflective of needs. Particularly, to provide information to disrupt drug trafficking and planned violence.

“It’s no secret that…a lot of activity that happens outside of the walls of prisons is coordinated inside prisons,” he said. “There are opportunities to exploit that information and leverage it.”

Being able to have representatives from different agencies to quickly coordinate efforts, as opposed to having “disparate entities” work within their jurisdictional boundaries, is what HIDTA represents, according to Taylor.

“Criminals have no such boundaries or authorities, and they can easily manipulate that to their advantage,” he said adding the program is a recognition that adjoining agencies need to work together to fight criminal drug activity. “They need help from the federal level, coordination with the state and then local agencies working together.”

The partnerships and resources afforded to Gloucester County through HIDTA have increased its ability to “eradicate drug trafficking in our region,” according to Ingram, especially given the county’s dynamic. In a short drive, the environment changes from urban, to suburban, to rural.

“If we didn’t have the resources in partnership with HIDTA, it would have been much more difficult to move from area to area and effectively get the maximum impact in that particular region,” he said.