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Crime Prevention: Region may be taking new angle against drug trafficking

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While giving a presentation in Baltimore on crime prevention, East Hills community activist David Adams received an invitation from an audience member to come talk with him about "social neighborhood decline."

Not knowing what he meant, Adams agreed to meet the man at his house, which turned out to be a mansion. And then things got strange. "He had guys walking around with guns on their hips," Adams says. "I didn't know if he was law enforcement or not. His card just said he was a consultant."

As Adams sat down at the table, the "consultant" came in and threw a bag of cocaine on the table. "He said, 'This is what I do,'" recalls Adams, a former Marine and a staff member with the University of Pittsburgh's facilities management.

Adams told the story at a seminar on law enforcement on Aug. 1, in the State Office Building Downtown, to illustrate a point: "This guy has a master's degree in engineering; he hobnobs with some of the biggest politicians in America," Adams told the crowd of about 45 officers and attorneys. "We cannot allow our vision to be clouded by thinking that drug dealers are just the little peons we see on the street."

Adams' talk was one of two speeches given at the Friday program, which was co-hosted by the regional office of the governor and the Conscience Group, an unfunded anti-violence community group that Adams started a few years ago.

The encounter with the consultant mirrored findings that Adams made closer to home. Based upon three years of interviews, the Conscience Group released a threat assessment for southwestern Pennsylvania this year, which avers that there is a "massive, open and unprotected corridor" of drug traffic running from the Carolinas through Pennsylvania and up to Canada.

During the seminar, Adams encouraged the audience to petition the federal government to declare southwestern Pennsylvania a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). The designation would bring added dollars into the region to disrupt organized drug crime.

Thomas Carr -- director of the Washington/Baltimore HIDTA, and the other speaker at the seminar -- said that the Office of National Drug Control Policy typically provides at least $3 million to set up a new HIDTA. That money goes to crime analysis, overtime pay for officers, surveillance equipment, and training, among other benefits.

But to earn the designation, a coalition of area law-enforcement agencies must petition the feds with a threat assessment that proves the money is needed and the local drug problem is affecting other parts of the country.

Allen Kukovich, the director of the governor's southwest regional office, says that the point of the meeting was to provide local law enforcement agencies with as much information as possible, and to gauge what level of support existed for the program. "My sense was ... that there was general support," he says.

Representatives from the five counties of southwestern Pennsylvania (Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland, and Allegheny) were on hand, as was U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan. During the seminar, Buchanan questioned Carr on whether funds would be available for a new HIDTA. "I think it could be a very positive development for the area," she said in an Aug. 4 interview, adding that she's going to a HIDTA meeting in September in Maryland to learn more.

Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny District Attorney Stephen Zappala, says that HIDTA's goals are in line with existing programs and the DA's office would support it.

If communities in southwestern Pennsylvania seek HIDTA funding, they'd be competing with other areas of the country that are also looking for help. They'd also have to reconcile a diverse mix of needs and capabilities.

"I'd be the last to say that we don't need it," says Beaver County District Attorney Anthony Berosh. "But I'd be the first to say that it's really geared to major departments. The serious question is how is it filtered down to local departments?"

HIDTA counties make up about 14 percent of the United States. There are already designations in Ohio and the Philadelphia/Camden area. There's a HIDTA committee meeting scheduled for Sept. 12, at which Adams expects to get a representative from each county to attend. On a parallel track, Adams -- who lost a City Council race to Rev. Ricky Burgess last year -- is pushing his own Neighborhood Awareness Crime Prevention Program.

He says that current anti-crime programs and block watches -- some of which were set up years ago and designed for less organized and violent crime -- are not working. "Crime has changed," Adams says. "The society has changed. But the program has not."

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