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Police ‘chasing paper’ in prescription fraud

Midway through Wednesday’s budget presentation, St. Mary’s Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) advised the audience in the room and anyone watching the county’s cable television channel that they might find the next scene on a projection screen disturbing.

A police camera’s video showed two people in a car parked outside a northern St. Mary’s pharmacy, and a laughing woman giving the male driver some oxycodone pills that he promptly ground up, heated up with some water over a flame, and injected into his arm. On the second jab with a needle.

“He was going to drive away,” Cameron said. “That didn’t happen. He was apprehended.”

The video clip underscored the efforts by the sheriff’s vice-narcotics commander and his deputies to combat the top drug problem in the area, the abuse of prescription medication.

Capt. Daniel Alioto said that prescription drugs valued at almost $190,000 were seized last year by his task force members, and that prescription fraud cases are going up, as are the number of burglaries and thefts from vehicles, as the law officers continue their efforts to track down bogus prescriptions presented to local pharmacies by culprits who have been identified and run out of other jurisdictions.

“We call this ‘chasing paper,’” Alioto said.

A new “Script Alert” program notifies all local pharmacies, the captain said, when the investigators learn of bogus prescription slips or someone “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions.

“I only see it getting better,” he said of the alert program’s success.

Which brings the narcotics officers to the newest trend and trouble, a resurgence in the use of heroin, the cheaper street version of the opium-based oxycodone pills.

“Baltimore is the heroin capital of America,” Alioto said, and finding syringes in St. Mary’s during traffic stops and roadside searches is becoming “commonplace.”

There was at least one heroin death and five non-lethal heroin overdoses in the county last year, he said, resulting from when pill abusers make the switch.

“They’re junior chemists,” the captain said. “When they switch to heroin, it’s much stronger.”

St. Mary’s County’s sheriff unveiled a draft budget Wednesday night for the next fiscal year that seeks a 9.9 percent spending increase, to more than $34.8 million, and he said the “whittling” process now begins before a formal request is submitted next week.

The draft proposal calls for seven new deputies, Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said after a public meeting of his citizen advisory board. One of those officers would oversee an automatic traffic enforcement program that would include cameras designed to photograph motorists driving through red lights or past stopped school buses.

The draft proposal also would add five more correctional officers at the county jail and upgrade some part-time civilian jobs to full-time positions.

The draft budget was presented in the main meeting room of the Chesapeake Building of the county’s governmental center complex in Leonardtown, the same room where the sheriff and his staff will present the formal version of their 2013-2014 spending request to the county commissioners. The $34.8 million total for the operating budget includes all personnel, training and supplies such as replacement vehicles, but is separate from the $9.5 million in projected construction costs to make repairs at the jail.

Cameron said at the outset of the meeting, primarily attended by his senior officers and members of the advisory board, that the proposed budget balances the agency’s needs and economic realities for a county of more than 107,000 people.

“I emphasize that this is a draft request,” he said, as he expressed his gratitude for the “very supportive” funding his agency received from the county commissioners for the current fiscal year that will end on June 30.

Capt. Michael Merican, the commander of the detention center, said the county jail will still need an expansion, which was recently rejected by the county commissioners, because the inmate population will continue to increase. He said a modular office building is needed now because of the cancellation of the expansion project.

The draft budget’s equipment requests for the jail includes a pair of portable air conditioners, which the captain said are necessary for the “humane treatment” of the inmates.

Cameron said toward the program’s end that while he has a deputy assigned to each of the county’s high schools, he wants to assign two more deputies to school-resource duties to join the pair now covering the county’s four middle schools.

As for a day-long presence at the county’s 17 regular public elementary schools, the sheriff said, “We’re not poised to fill that void today,” but he’s in “constant communication” with the county’s school administrators.

The proposed budget includes $30,000 to compensate deputies who are put on “on-call” status, an average of 30 officers at any given time, and Cameron said that request was agreed to through discussions with representatives of the local Fraternal Order of Police.

“We frequently come to the table and want the same thing,” the sheriff said.

Walter “Sam” Sayers, a member of the advisory board, commended the sheriff for limiting the requests to his essential needs.

“I’ll start whittling this down,” Cameron replied. “We try to find a balance.”

“You do so much, with so little,” Sayers said.

The sheriff said after the meeting that he currently is authorized to have 136 sworn officers, and nine of those positions now are vacant. The jail is authorized for 82 correctional officers, and there now are seven vacancies.