With heroin and opioid-related deaths spiraling throughout Westchester, County Executive Rob Astorino and District Attorney Anthony Scarpino Jr. announced Thursday the formation of a joint task force to combat the epidemic.
The task force, comprised of members of the Department of Public Safety, prosecutors and criminal investigators from the district attorney’s office and local law enforcement, will collaborate to get illegal opioids off the streets and arrest and prosecute the people selling them.
Under the plan, the Westchester County Intelligence Center will also dedicate three analysts to assist the task force compile, analyze and report statistical and evidentiary trends and patterns.
“We’re going to attack this with everything we’ve got to save every possible life here in Westchester County,” Astorino said. “Our message to all the dirt bags out there who are pushing drugs at our kids and our community is that we are coming after you with a vengeance.”
Astorino said with a nearly 300 percent increase in opioid overdose in the last five years, the task force will investigate and aggressively pursue drug dealers, not addicts. He added anyone who sells drugs leading to a person’s death would be charged with homicide.
Scarpino warned that while the county is no stranger to the war on drugs, heroin and opioids laced with the deadly drug fentanyl has made the current drug epidemic the top public health threat throughout the country. In 2015, there were more than 52,000 deaths attributed to opioid abuse across the United States. Many of the victims were teenagers and young adults, officials said.
“This is a new trend,” Scarpino said. “What is on the market now is more potent, more addictive and more deadly; it is considerably more dangerous. Make no mistake, it is an epidemic at this time. It is devastating our communities.”
Officials said the joint effort would benefit the community by allocating resources and manpower to individual police departments that determine heroin and opioid dealers are operating within their communities. Smaller departments with limited resources would benefit most from the task force, Scarpino said.
“We are there to assist them in what they need and doing what they need to do and giving them additional resources,” he said.
George Longworth, the Department of Public Safety commissioner, said through enhanced coordination the number of drug-related arrests will continue to increase throughout the county. He cited more than 230 heroin-related arrests last year.
Astorino also highlighted the work of Project WORTHY – Westchester Opioid Response Teams Helping You – an initiative launched last month that brings together the county’s health, mental health and law enforcement resources to save lives and help families put at risk by opioid addiction.
“We make resources more effective when teams come together,” Astorino said. “It is saddening in a county like this, or anywhere, that we have to deal with something as disastrous and horrible as overdose.”