Drugs in Newport: Defining the Battles
“Realize it can be your brother, your child, your mother,” said Newport Police Lt. Michael Naylor of the Vice/Narcotics Division.
The department, known for its commitment to community policing, often pursues alternatives to charging a dealer who is struggling with addiction. In 2016, three overdose deaths were reported to Newport police. Two residents died from an overdose last week. One victim sucked on a Fentanyl patch and the other shot heroin for the first time in a while.
“You get a little nervous,” said Naylor about the unusual spike. Last year, heroin laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl contributed to the majority of the 171 overdose deaths in Rhode Island, according to the Department of Health. Fentanyl is up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Naylor’s three-man unit recently celebrated a significant enforcement success with the arrest of large-scale cocaine distributor Pedro Jimenez-Rodriguez. The 40-year-old was importing a kilogram of cocaine each month from Puerto Rico. Last week, police were notified that Rodriguez will be federally prosecuted.
“That was very good news,” said Naylor. “He was a big one.”
Newport police seize one to two kilograms of cocaine in a typical year. A kilogram is worth approximately $40,000 wholesale and $80,000 on the streets. Police arrested Rodriguez on Jan. 13, after months of questioning mid-level drug dealers and monitoring a drug deal.
On Jan. 10, a postal inspector intercepted a package addressed to Rodriguez and found the cocaine hidden in a child’s pink ottoman. The contents were repackaged, delivered, and Rodriguez was arrested after police broke down the door.
Although some police departments treat dealers equally, that is not what Naylor teaches the patrol unit.
“When you first start, you think a delivery is a delivery,” said Naylor, who has been policing for 24 years. “When you are in patrol you get numb to it. But these are the sons and daughters of our community. “
For instance, Newport police recently arrested a woman for selling heroin. Like most heroin addicts Naylor interviews, doctor-prescribed painkillers hooked her on drugs. When pills became too expensive, she turned to street drugs.
“I couldn’t afford to get high, so I started selling it,” said the woman in a recorded interview. “I didn’t wake up one day and decide I wanted to sell drugs.”
To avoid painful withdrawal symptoms, she has become a “slave” to the drug. “That’s all you care about. It comes before your family, your kids, everything,” she said tearfully.
A 30-year-old Newport fisherman recently survived his 13th accidental heroin overdose. When it comes to addiction, “the general public doesn’t have a clue,” he said.
“Heroin will take everything you think you own. Your family, your soul, it will take everything,” said another local fisherman who recently overdosed.
When Naylor joined the department 24 years ago, the sale of crack cocaine was rampant in Newport.
“There were drug dealings in the street. It was out in the open. On Broadway, low income housing, the kids dealt it on the corners,” Naylor said.
In 1994, during the crack cocaine epidemic, President Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which provided billions of dollars to police departments and stiffer penalties for drug dealers.
“All of a sudden, it wasn’t profitable to deal drugs in Newport,” said Naylor. “We had a lot of drug dealers come from out of town.”
Critics say the bill unfairly targeted African Americans, because penalties for crack cocaine were far more severe than for those in possession of powder cocaine, which is more popular among white drug users.
The federal prison population doubled in 20 years, filling up with black males. Since leaving office, Clinton expressed regret about the unintended consequences of the law.
“If you had five grams of crack, you went to federal prison for five years. They just lessened it under President Obama,” said Naylor. “There are local, small-time drug dealers still serving sentences in federal prisons across the country.”
Today, with less funding available, the department has moved away from conducting large drug sweeps.
Despite cutbacks and relaxed sentences, the drug problem in Newport has not reverted back to 1980s levels. Last year, police executed 21 drug-related search warrants, 23 cocaine or heroin arrests, six firearm arrests and one murder arrest.
“Compared with the statewide average, Newport’s numbers are about the same,” said Naylor.
[Editor’s note: This is the first story of a “Drugs in Newport” series. The next story will be published on March 30.]