Most days, Portsmouth Police Captain Mike Schwartz starts his work day at his desk. He drinks his coffee, and reads yesterday’s police log. “So much of it is about people trying to feed their addiction,” he says, "people trying to find enough money to buy a bag of heroin.”
A proliferation of cheap heroin has created a drug epidemic across Northern New England over the last couple years. Places like Manchester and Salem have been fighting a variety of drug abuse problems for more than 20 years. But in towns like Portsmouth, this crisis is a bit of a shock to the system.
Shoplifting, burglary, petty theft and prostitution are all on the rise in Portsmouth. Schwartz says cars are broken into here every night.
Unless it’s your wallet or laptop that was stolen, you’d be hard pressed to actually see that Portsmouth is in the grip of a heroin crisis. That’s the way Deputy Chief Corey MacDonald wants to keep things.
Here, he says, deals don’t go down on street corners. “That’s more something you might see in Manchester,” he says. “The deals that we have are usually done in peoples’ houses. They have a cell phone, call someone up, they meet.”
MacDonald grew up in Portsmouth and has spent the last 17 years on the police force. He says traffic control, underage drinking and pot used to be the city’s big problems. But now, with 4 new overdoses in the last month, "that's a whole new ball of wax for our community,” he says.
The crisis has been growing across New Hampshire and the region. A report issued Wednesday by the Department of Health and Human Services called it an “epidemic.” DHHS reports heroin overdoses in Rockingham County have increased from 14 to 47 in just three years.
And, Detective Division Captain Mike Schwartz says, it's “peoples' neighbors, it's young people, it's old people. It cuts all the way across the community.”
Schwartz heads up the department’s drug investigations. He says if an officer finds you in possession, he or she has to arrest you. But it’s not drug users police here are hunting down. It’s drug dealers.
In a big garage behind the police headquarters , Officer Seth Tondreault whacks each tire on a vehicle the department just seized from an alleged heroin dealer. “If it's a thud, could be something in there,” Tondreault says.
He's searching for heroin or other drugs in what he calls a “hide,” or hidden compartment.
"Sometimes it's as innocuous as the ashtray," he says. "Sometimes it’s as complex as, you know, under the seats - they may cut a hole in the floor - and there’s a box with a series of switches, you gotta turn this knob, push this button and it’ll open."
Portsmouth police have made 70 drug related arrests in the last year – that’s up from 50 in 2009. Captain Schwartz says that’s keeping people busy.
"The search warrant that that car was seized on, that took two or three of my detectives half a day to put all the info together to get it to a judge to authorize that search," he says. "So it’s a lot of work."
Add to that all the drug-related thefts and shoplifting reports to write up all day, police say traffic control and schoolyard monitoring has taken a backseat.
But Deputy MacDonald says, they’ve got to everything they can to keep this crisis from escalating.
We're a destination city," he says. "People come here, they love it. We get voted most 'whatever' every week. It’s great. None of us need to be reminded that if suddenly there's a needle found in a park that could all go away. That’s a headline we just don’t want."
So, MacDonald says, he’s ready to take risks to nip things in the bud. Next on his to-do-list? A one-time free-pass for heroin users who are ready to get clean. Have them show up at the police station, surrender their drugs, and head into a room of addiction counselors.