TAG team

Newton Falls police received a call last week, then made a call to the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force.

Like many of its counterparts in Trumbull and Ashtabula counties, the police department has contacted the drug-investigative unit, more commonly known as TAG, on several occasions after receiving tips or information about suspected drug activity. In this case, it was a possible methamphetamine lab.

“They call us and we’re there. It really is a partnership, a collaborative effort,” said Jeff Orr, TAG commander and a captain in the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office.

The task force doesn’t replace local police, he said. It was created to work with them to help drive drugs out of their communities.

TAG focuses its investigations on drug traffickers, gangs, firearm traffickers, and Homeland Security issues.

Orr said that although meth labs continue springing up in Trumbull County, they remain most prevalent in Ashtabula. In Trumbull, police are more likely to see heroin and opiate transactions.

Recently, state Attorney General Mike DeWine said heroin is everywhere in Ohio. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the increase in heroin-related deaths an “urgent public health crisis.” Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, Trumbull County coroner, has classified heroin as an epidemic.

The task force sees it all. As drug activity increases, so do the calls to TAG.

New cases in Trumbull County opened by TAG last year steadily increased each quarter, from 26 in the first, 34 in the second to 37 in the third and fourth. A majority of last year’s cases were the result of a year-long investigation involving the Detroit-Warren drug pipeline that netted dozens of arrests.

“Drug activity has no borders,” Niles police Chief Rob Hinton said. “Pulling resources through the task force allows us to cover many borders.

”A lot of our local communities have lost manpower and we’ve faced cuts. In Niles, I had a decision to make and I just didn’t have the resources to devote more time to narcotics. It just makes a lot of sense to have the task force.

”At the same time we still work on the street,” Hinton said. ”We’re still out there. But instead of us working on a limited basis working with the task force allows us to have more of a presence.”

Although frequently in the middle or at forefront of an investigation, task force members often stay in the background and outside public view at crime scenes, during drug raids and throughout extensive investigations.

Orr said many people are unaware of the role TAG plays in local law enforcement. However, based on the number of tips and calls the group receives, along with investigations and multiple arrests credited TAG’s assistance, that appears to be changing.

TAG is a multi-county agency that was formed in 2001 by the sheriffs in Trumbull and Ashtabula counties. The task force includes deputy sheriffs from Trumbull and Ashtabula counties and police officers from Howland and Niles.

All of TAG’s investigators are full-time, working at least 40 hours a week. In addition to investigators, TAG has two support staff that are intelligence analysts providing investigative support and clerical assistance as wells as grant financial support.

Also, a BCI investigator works directly with TAG out of the agency’s office.

Some of TAG’s investigations are sparked by tips the task force receives. For example, last year, the task force received 374 drug tips. Of those, 175 were in Trumbull. The others were in Ashtabula.

TAG records show that meth labs were the number one complaint received, making up 18.45 percent of all tips received, followed by heroin at 17.65 percent and marijuana at 11.23 percent.

This tally does not include unknown or miscellaneous tips. Other activities reported include prostitution, guns and other drugs.

In Trumbull, the task force received the most complaints, about 19.43 percent, about heroin, followed by marijuana at 17.14 percent and pills at 14.29 percent.

“There are those days when we get a call like we did from Newton Falls. They get a tip and follow up on it and call us out. Other times, we get a tip from someone, maybe neighbors in some cases saying something is going on at a certain house, and we check it out,” Orr said.

”Every day is different. Every case is different,” he said.

Along with additional manpower, TAG provides the equipment and supplies needed to collect evidence.

“TAG plays a major role in our community drug operations. It really is a beneficial partnership. A lot of work gets done because of the resources from the task force. Those are resources a lot of the smaller communities like ours just don’t have,” Howland assistant police chief Nick Roberts said. “When we call, they come. It just makes sense.”

TAG, the only county agency without a regular budget, receives its funding through two grants that are locally matched from drug money seized during raids and investigations. This year, the Justice Assistance Grant through the Office of Criminal Justice Services is providing $74,240. The local match is $24,748.

The other, from the Office of Criminal Justice Services through the Ohio Drug Law Enforcement Fund, will provide $198,646 this year with a local match of $66,216.

The participating agencies also supply vehicles and fuel. TAG, through its grant funding, provides equipment. phones, faxes, Internet, the technology used on the street and in the office, confidential funds for buying drugs, investigative support, office supplies (including cleaning items), alarm system, equipment repair, towing of vehicles and a limited amount of overtime pay as necessary.

He said assisting at the scene like the one last week in Newton Falls could cost the task force anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000.

Orr explained drug forfeiture dollars have provided local match dollars since 2008 “saving our communities funding.”

Howland and Niles police departments and the two participating sheriff’s offices provide people. One investigator from each county, as well as two support staff, is paid through grant funds. All other personnel are paid by their respective agencies.

“We are very fortunate when we seize cash. It’s not very often, and when we do, it means we’ve missed the drugs because they’ve already been sold or the money is there to pay for more. The money isn’t our goal. It’s getting the drugs off the streets and out of our communities.”

Orr explained that any seized money beyond what is needed to continue operating for the year is banked for the next year “so we remain a law enforcement asset to our communities.”