NIAGARA COUNTY, N.Y. - Law enforcement in Niagara County have applied with the White House for designation as a "High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area," a move that could offer the county federal funding and much-needed resources to curtail the opiate epidemic.
Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour said the county has filed the necessary paperwork and application with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and it must now wait for the federal government's approval. The county has sought $125,000 for the addition of a crime analyst and drug intelligence officer under the program.
The opiate epidemic has severely impacted Niagara County in particular. According to the county's Department of Mental Health, one local hospital has reported seeing one to two people in the emergency room each day because of overdoses, the vast majority of which resulted from opiate abuse. Hospitalizations due to opiates have tripled since 2011, reaching 186 in 2015, one of the highest rates in the entire state.
If approved, Niagara County would become the 24th county to join the regional New York/New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. Erie and Chautauqua County already participate in the program, according to the official White House website.
Sheriff Voutour said Niagara County deserves the federal resources-- and noted as such in its application to the federal government.
"We talked about everything that happens in our county. The drug overdoses, the crime rates, the population, our proximity to Canada, our highways, there's a lot of things involved in it," Voutour said. "So we put together a very lengthy application."
Senator Charles Schumer sent a letter to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, urging it to approve Niagara County as a High Intensity Area. Republican State Senator Robert Ortt has also signaled his support, as well as Niagara Falls Police Chief Bryan DalPorto and the Niagara County Legislature.
John Syracuse, who represents the 14th District in the legislature, said the county sorely needs the resources to help stop the international drug trade.
"You take a look geographically with where we are-- not just the Niagara County region but also in the Erie County region, our bridge crossings that we have. We are an international border, and we have East-West routes to Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and New York," Syracuse said.
The county legislature passed a resolution this winter to create a standing committee on the opiate epidemic. That committee is currently receiving feedback from law enforcement, the mental health community and the medical community, Syracuse said.
Voutour agreed the three border crossings in Niagara County present a challenge, adding that the access from Canada through Lake Ontario offers another avenue for international drug trade. If the county receives funding to add a crime analyst and drug intelligence officer, both positions could help law enforcement stop that drug movement. Voutour said the crime analyst could work not only with law enforcement, but also with the county Health Department and treatment centers to identify trends in opiate use. The drug intelligence officer could tap into information from other New York/New Jersey High Intensity areas -- as well as areas across the country -- to identify suspects and enhance their investigations.
For example, Voutour said a suspect in a neighboring area like Monroe County may be linked to drug crimes in Niagara County. As a HIDTA county, Niagara County could access information in other parts of the state and country.
"What this does is it just gives us more assets," Voutour said. "We are just overwhelmed here in Niagara trying to keep up with the statistics that we unfortunately have."
Voutour offered a few final statistics:
--In 2015, Niagara County ranked fourth out of 62 New York counties (per capita) for the number of hydrocodone and oxycodone prescriptions
--The Niagara County Drug Task Force reports 73 live-saving uses of Narcan through the first half of 2016
--217 out of 10,000 babies born in Niagara County are addicted to opiates
With millions of tourists visiting the Falls every year, and easy access from Canada, Voutour urged the federal government to approve its application for help. Now, they must wait for the White House's answer.