Saturday January 19, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The coordinated, high-profile roundup of alleged drug dealers in Bennington County this week was the culmination of a meticulous, six-month investigation involving confidential informants handled by undercover officers, according to police involved.

The overwhelming show of force Wednesday included more than 100 officers from local, county, state and federal agencies -- many of them outfitted in full tactical gear. The investigation and arrest sweep, which targeted 63 suspects and has now netted more than 50 arrests, was carried out by the Vermont Drug Task Force’s Mobile Enforcement Team.

The specialized unit was created by state legislation passed last year and funded with $150,000. It focuses on investigating and combating drugs, guns, gangs and violent crimes.

Vermont State Police Lt. Matthew Birmingham, commander of the Vermont Drug Task Force, said the case against the 63 alleged drug dealers was built around the information gathered by undercover officers and confidential informants willing to work with police.

"These are definitely undercover drug units. The officers assigned to them work in an undercover capacity," he said. "Police are acting in undercover roles as drug buyers, as gun buyers, as part of the criminal element, as you would imagine on TV."

The cases in and around Bennington, like most drug cases, required the cooperation of the public. The level of assistance officers receive varies. Birmingham said the most significant involvement includes confidential informants purchasing drugs from dealers under the supervision of nearby undercover officers. Others simply provide tips.

"Some people are themselves facing charges and are looking for cooperation agreements with prosecutors. There are some that receive money as compensation for their work," Birmingham said of the informants.

Court records show that informants who helped build the cases against many of the 63 suspects sought by police this week received as much as $100 in compensation each time they purchased drugs under police supervision.

Investigators make audio or video recordings of the controlled purchases. Those recordings, along with traditional police work, are used against suspected drug dealers in court, Birmingham said.

"All of that ... put together is kind of how we build our cases," he said. "These investigators will work for months on end. They’re very slow. They involve a lot of time and energy in doing research and surveillance and connecting the dots, so to speak, on potential targets."

An officer with knowledge of the investigation leading to this week’s arrests, as well as prior drug investigations, said undercover officers will immediately recover the drugs purchased by informants following the sale. The evidence must then be weighed, tested in the field to confirm what it is and sent to the state lab for further analysis.

"All that’s part of building the case, whether they buy once, twice, three times or 20 times," said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Confidential informants are a key part of building a successful case. Even though officers are working undercover, "it’s not as simple as just walking up to a drug dealer and asking them to buy drugs," Birmingham said.

"The greatest mechanism is using other people that are already in it, who are working as informants for the drug task force. They can introduce you to that world. Once they kind of give you credibility on the street you can build it up yourself," he said.

There is typically a greater risk of danger for informants. Birmingham said police try to ensure their safety, but they are sometimes discovered by targets.

"What we worry about sometimes are the confidential informants, the people that are out living in the drug world," Birmingham said. "At times they are figured out and we take every precaution to protect their safety and make sure that nothing happens to them. We will go to great lengths to protect them."

Undercover operations are dangerous and officers "assume everybody is armed," Birmingham said. It turns out that most people are, he said.

"By and large, people who traffic in drugs are also moving a significant amount of cash. With that there is violence and there are firearms," Birmingham said.

"We have an incredible amount of protocols in place to help protect investigators in the field. Our greatest priority is the safety of officers in the field," he added. "We’re doing everything in our power to ensure that it’s safe and nobody gets hurt and we end it and get the evidence we need to build a case."

Officers involved in drug investigations with the Vermont Drug Task Force are not typically under "deep cover." In those cases, "you’re trying to embed yourself and the only way to do that and get the evidence you need is to go under deep cover," he said. "That kind of operation is not going on in Bennington County."

Deep cover is typically used by police investigating outlaw motorcycle gangs or other large, criminal syndicates, according to Birmingham. "You can get to operations that are embedded, undercover operations where you actually take on a different role, a different identity. That’s very rare in Vermont," he said.

Still, working undercover on drug investigations requires sacrifice. Appearances can change, and work hours can be hard on families.

"Hours are not fixed by any stretch. Drug dealers don’t keep 9 to 5 business hours, or 3 to 11 business hours," said the officer speaking on the condition of anonymity. "They have to be very flexible."

Undercover cops must also learn to blend in and become part of the subculture they are looking to infiltrate. "It’s not how much you need to learn, it’s how much you need to forget," the officer said. "You need to stop acting like a cop."

Drug cases require investigators to provide great detail about "what you did and what you saw." "Many of these people don’t use real names, they go by street names. So, you may only know your person as a street name Š and then you’ve got to figure out who he is or who she is and how you identify them," the officer said.

Reports and criminal histories compiled by investigators generate a tremendous amount of paperwork. "You multiply that by 63 Š and that pile of paperwork is extensive," the officer said.

The Mobile Enforcement Unit planned the arrest sweep this week because the number of cases had grown so large and investigators had built strong cases against those alleged to be dealers, the officer said.

"You saw the number of police required to do what we needed to do. You can start to get too big and not be able to keep track of what you’re doing," he said.

The lengthy investigation revealed an extensive market for hard drugs in Bennington County, according to the unnamed officer. It also showed a "well-run network" involving members of street-based gangs, mainly from New York.

"Did we get all of them? Absolutely not," the officer said. "This is not primarily marijuana that we’re talking about. These are hard drugs that take extensive treatment to get off from. So, I would say that it’s certainly concerning for the number out there," he said of the dealers who likely remain in the community.

The investigation also revealed that most of the alleged dealers pinched this week are selling to support their own drug habits. However, "Very clearly, there’s some that are not, that are selling for profit," the officer said.

Despite this week’s roundup, police are continuing to actively pursue cases against additional targets in the county, Birmingham said.

"We’re continuing with these operations. We’re not going to just stop because of that arrest sweep," he said. "We find that after these sweeps, certainly, the drug market goes dry for quite a while. But, it comes back and we want to try and prevent it from coming back with any great force."

The public, many who offer tips to police, often wonder what police are doing about drugs, the anonymous officer said. Wednesday’s operation shows that police are working behind the scenes to help clean up the streets, he said.

"We have gotten phone calls, ‘What are you doing about the drug problem here?’" he said. "You just keep telling them you’re working on it and when you hang up the phone you get the feeling that they’re not happy with your response. When things of this magnitude get put together in that kind of operation you can go back and just kind of think to yourself, ‘Now they know. We’re working on it.’"

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com, or on Twitter, @nealgoswami