Combating drugs across the county

Drug dealers and producers increasingly rely on sophisticated surveillance technology to protect themselves from law enforcement.

And the dealers are getting savvier too, as many adopt a less conspicuous appearance and tend to stay off the drugs when they deal them.

These are just a few of the challenges the Washington County Narcotics Task Force must face as it continues its long-running fight against drugs.

“It’s a great group up there,” said Detective Brian Stroshane, a former task force member who has returned to the Oakdale Police Department. “They’re working really hard, and I think they’re definitely making a difference up there.”

The purpose of the task force is to cover a broader area than just one community, a tactic necessary to successfully combat wide-ranging drug problems, Washington County Sheriff Steve Pott said in a recent phone interview.

“The drug dealers obviously don’t stop at the city borders, or the county borders for that matter,” he said.

Pott is not directly involved with the task force, but his department provides much of the funding and oversees its daily operations.

“The value of the task force is that you can share information easily with the agencies involved,” Pott said. Information gathered by local police officers is passed on to the task force, where members can process it and send improved intelligence back to police.

Unlike many law enforcement agencies, the task force is proactive in its investigations and actively seeks out new cases, Pott said.

Challenging work

The proactive nature of the task force is one reason why Stroshane wanted to join. As a member, he learned how to cultivate informants, interview suspects and gather intelligence - skills that help him now as an investigator with the Oakdale police.

Stroshane said his job was rewarding but extremely challenging.

“Just the scheduling aspects - you have to be willing to work when the work needs to get done,” Stroshane said. Pursuing cases would often turn into a 16 or 18-hour day, he said.

“You never know when the pager is going to go off, and there’s something that needs to be dealt with immediately.”

His time was pretty evenly divided between interviewing patrol suspects, developing informants, surveillance, drug buys and arrests. He also was trained to do meth-lab cleanup, which often required wearing a white hazardous suit and either a gas mask or a respirator.

“I was probably involved in two meth cleanups a month,” Stroshane said.

The task force had nine meth lab busts in 2004, and two so far this year. In 2004, 3,885 grams of meth were seized.

And while meth has been making the headlines lately, Pott pointed out that use of other controlled substances has remained steady. In the last two years, the task force seized nearly 2,000 grams of cocaine, as well as crack cocaine, marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms, steroids, ecstasy and opium.

So far this year, the task force has seized more than $50,000 in cash, a portion of which the task force can use to pay for its operations.

The task force members have had to adapt to advanced technology used by drug dealers.

“We would run into more and more houses that had video surveillance on the doors, so that was a safety concern,” Stroshane said. When executing a search warrant there, the officers just had to be more aware of what was going on, he said.

For undercover work, many of the officers take on a scruffy look in an attempt to go unnoticed, Pott said.

“I had shoulder-length long hair and goatee, pretty much the whole time I was out there,” Stroshane said of his nearly three-year stint on the task force.

However, the unkempt look may be unnecessary. Pott said that many drug offenders don’t fit stereotypes as much as they did in the past.

“I would say that the drug users don’t have the kind of appearance that you used to expect,” Pott said. “There’s a lot of money in it. I think that the successful dealers have learned that you don’t want to use the drugs when you’re selling them. You want to have a clear head when you’re doing business.”

Stroshane said that, since leaving the task force in 2004, he has maintained contacts throughout the county, which has made it easy to obtain and share information as an investigator in Oakdale.

“So many people we deal with aren’t from Oakdale, but they’re committing crimes in Oakdale,” Stroshane said.

Team effort

The task force, which has operated in the county for more than 15 years, is currently staffed by two Washington County deputies, a sergeant and police officers from Cottage Grove, Forest Lake and Woodbury.

Oakdale hasn’t had an officer on the force recently due to staffing shortages, but Police Chief Bill Sullivan said he hopes to send one as soon as he can.

“They have been a valuable contribution with the team,” Pott said of Oakdale. “They’ve been involved for quite a few years now.”

The task force works closely with similar groups in nearby counties such as Ramsey and Anoka. While the focus is on keeping drugs out of schools and neighborhoods, investigations often uncover larger operations that require assistance from federal agencies.

Nearly $100,000 in funding comes from a federal grant, and Washington County pays the remainder of the $261,000 budget. Each community pays the base salary of its officer.

“It was just a phenomenal learning experience to work in a group like this,” Stroshane said.

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