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In an effort to combat a rising tide of daytime burglaries largely motivated by prescription drug abuse, the Charles County Sheriff’s Office is asking citizens to redefine what they consider suspicious behavior and call police if they observe anything out of the norm.

For more than a year, the department’s chief refrain in public settings and neighborhood meetings has been the role the community plays in crime prevention.

More recently, Charles County Sheriff Rex Coffey (D) and his officers have begun telling residents to turn a more suspicious eye toward behavior that might seem innocuous at first glance.

Last week, Coffey encouraged those in attendance at the department’s quarterly Citizens Advisory Committee meeting in La Plata to “be a nosy neighbor and watch what’s going on.”

He lamented the fact that, while reports of most crimes have fallen in Charles over the last couple of years, burglary is the one index offense that has continued to increase significantly.

There were 767 burglaries in 2011, an 8 percent increase over 2010, when burglaries were up 18 percent from the previous year.

“No matter what we’ve done so far, it hasn’t made us as successful as we’d like to be,” Coffey said, calling the burglaries “a real Herculean challenge for us.”

“It’s impossible for us to get a grip on this thing without you,” he added.

Coffey said investigators are noticing an increasing trend whereby burglars no longer have “the old suspicious type of nature where we see people lurking around in the dark and sneaking around the back of the house.”

Instead, “they’re just bold and brazen, and they just get out of the car and kick the front door in or they get out of the car and act like they belong there” before breaking in, he said.

In an interview, Capt. Ray Aportadera, commander of the department’s Criminal Investigations Division, brought up a few recent cases as examples, including one last winter involving a couple in their mid-30s who would drive up to abandoned houses dressed like they were employees of a cable company and, while pretending to survey the homes, steal copper coils from air conditioning units.

“Even something that looks and appears to be legitimate on the outside, if they were to sit there and watch a little longer, a cable guy coming out carrying coils and the air conditioner is a clue,” Aportadera said.

In another case, a man walked door to door, looting the homes where no one answered and acting like he was looking for his dog when someone did.

Such brazen activity is often what keeps witnesses from calling in thefts in progress. One oft-cited example involved neighbors who, while being interviewed regarding a nearby burglary, reported having seen people walk down the street carrying a big-screen television but assumed it was merely being moved to another home. Who, they wondered, would walk a stolen television down the street of a crowded neighborhood in broad daylight?

“They’re not what the average person is thinking of a burglar to be,” Aportadera said, stressing diligence. “Even if it appears to be OK, continue to watch, and if they see anything that’s out of the norm, give us a call.”

Over the summer, Coffey attributed the uptick in burglaries to the amount of vacant homes in the county that are foreclosed or still under construction — unoccupied homes are easier targets for metal thieves.

County detectives monitor people who excessively pawn jewelry or sell metal at local shops, a technique that has helped close numerous burglary and theft investigations, Aportadera said.

Coffey noted that many of the county’s thefts and burglaries are committed by people looking to fund a prescription drug habit.

“Our narcotics guys are inundated with those cases,” he said. “You cannot get off this Oxycodone crap without help, and people just don’t understand that.”

“Most of our burglaries are being committed by people who are hooked on prescription drugs, and they tend to be younger, clean-cut people who you normally wouldn’t suspect or raise an eyebrow at if you saw them in your neighborhood,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Diane Richardson said.

“Pills, right now that’s our biggest problem,” Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) said. “We’re seeing so much of this stuff, and it’s just all for recreation. There’s this thinking out there that folks that are abusing pills, they had some injury before in life and they just got addicted to it, and sure, some of that happens. But a lot of this is just plain old recreational use, and people get addicted to it. ... People just want to get high.”

Unlike other illegal drugs often associated with violent crime, prescription drugs primarily have been tied to property crimes, Aportadera said.

“It’s a very addictive drug. There are people that have legitimate medical conditions who actually become addicted,” he said. “The cost of the drugs tend to be a little more expensive. With the use of prescription drugs, there’s a physical dependency, not just psychological. So there’s a need to have the drug daily, and if you’re not working, how are you going to get your money? Through burglaries, metal thefts, things of that nature, so that’s why we tend to see it more in these burglary cases, [breaking and entering] cases.”

The nature of narcotics investigations make it difficult to determine whether use of a certain drug is on the rise or merely coming to the attention of law enforcement — whereas most criminal investigations are reactive and begin once a crime has occurred, narcotics work is more proactive, in that one arrest tends to lead to more involving the same drug, Aportadera said.

“So really, was it an increase, or was it just because our attention’s now brought to it?” he said.

One reason he thinks his officers might be encountering more prescription drug addicts is that the drugs do not carry the same “stigma” as illegal substances like crack cocaine or heroin, Aportadera said.

“I think the perception with a good portion of the opiate users is that it’s a legal drug prescribed by doctors, so it can’t be as bad,” he said. “I think an analogy of that would be alcohol, meaning that you’ll have people that will use alcohol that would never use drugs, because alcohol is what? Legal.”

Aportadera said people might begin to use prescription drugs experimentally, similar to a lot of marijuana users, but that the difference lies in the level of addiction.

“You can stop marijuana; you’re not going to die,” he said. “You get addicted to opiates and you stop with it, you’re going to get stomach pains, you’re going to get sick.”

Once people become addicted, they use the drugs faster than prescribed and run out before they can get the prescription legally refilled. But there are several other ways to get the drugs, including on the street from dealers or by stealing them from friends or relatives.

Sometimes people will legally get a prescription, use a portion of it, and then give away or sell the rest rather than turn it in for disposal. Aportadera said technology makes it fairly easy to forge prescriptions, as well.

Another way people can get the drugs is through a process known as “doctor shopping,” Aportadera said.

“If you wanted to, you go to a doctor here and then you go to a doctor in P.G. County; doctors aren’t going to communicate. It’s not their job to communicate,” he added. “Because it’s a physical addiction, they’ll find a way to get it, whether it’s stealing, purchasing it, going to a doctor, whatever it is.”

Covington noted that the state legislature in 2011 established a program for monitoring the prescribing and dispensing of prescription drugs statewide, but it is not expected to be functional until next year.

“You’d think with technology today that we’d have a good way for pharmacies and doctors to see how many prescriptions folks are getting, or if there is a system out there, folks just aren’t using it,” Covington said. “I know the Maryland legislature is looking at it, but something needs to be done, and some resources need to be put towards it.”

Covington said he is waiting to find a test case where he can prosecute a physician for knowingly writing prescriptions with no medical purpose.

Those with leftover prescription pills can turn them in for disposal at drop-off locations at the sheriff’s office’s district stations in Waldorf, La Plata and Indian Head.

“It’s better for the environment. Don’t flush it down the toilet [or] throw it down your sink because it affects the water supply,” Aportadera said. “You don’t want to leave the pills out there because that could be a source of illegal drugs. ‘So-and-so’s grandmother has it, oh, there’s pills in there, let’s break into the house.’”

Aportadera said citizens should take note of any sudden changes in a relative’s behavior or appearance and report it if they suspect them of a crime.

“Part of them getting help, it’s a physical addiction, they need to get medical help with that, and once they’re in the criminal justice system, there’s programs out there where they will get the help they need,” Aportadera said.

jnewman@somdnews.com