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Narcotics team returns to Columbia County

Officials hope CENT will quell other crimes

CENT investigators meet with St. Helens police officers on the scene of a potential drug crime in St. Helens. The specialized narcotics investigation team was recently reformed in Columbia County.County law enforcement officials hope a newly revitalized narcotics team can help prevent other common crimes.

The Columbia Enforcement Narcotics Team, or CENT, was recently reinstated after funding and staffing cuts at police departments and the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office dissolved the specialized team years ago.

Last year, the regional police chiefs, sheriff and an Oregon State Police official agreed the specialized unit was needed in the county, but acknowledged

a lack of staffing. Over the

past few months, a new, small team was assembled and has since been working narcotics cases.

CENT aims to investigate and arrest drug violators linked to major criminal activity.

Officials say drug use and other crimes, like burglary and theft, are often tied to drug use.

“They’re focusing on some of the narcotics trafficking inside the county,” Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson explained. “There’s a real nexus between narcotics and a lot of the street crimes that are out there.”

In its heyday, CENT had a handful of detectives and was overseen by the St. Helens Police Department. Currently, CENT comprises a detective from the Sheriff’s Office, as well as one from the Scappoose Police Department. The team is now run out of the Sheriff’s Office.

The narcotics team previously had grant money available to it, but now relies on limited dedicated staffing paid by the agency employer of each officer or deputy.

Scappoose Police Chief Norm Miller said he hopes each police department in the county can eventually dedicate at least one officer to CENT.

Narcotics investigations remain a focus for the unit, but more as a means to prevent other “street crimes,” according to Dickerson.

Dickerson points to a rash of burglaries that hit St. Helens

in late spring and summer of 2014.

One of the suspects, a 22-year-old Columbia City man, had also been charged with possession of methamphetamine and, in a similar case the same year, oxycodone. Both drug charges were eventually dismissed in a plea deal, court records show.

In May, a total of 10 people were arrested in Scappoose in a massive identity theft and credit card fraud case. More than half the people arrested were also charged with drug possession.

On a Wednesday afternoon earlier in August, two plainclothes CENT investigators waited alongside St. Helens police officers, seizing a car they believed contained drugs or drug paraphernalia.

The car was towed, so a search warrant could be obtained, one of the officers explained.

Cases like this mark one of several in the county CENT is likely to take point on. They are cases that see an abundance of calls involving methamphetamine and heroin, often linked to other crimes.

“We send every drug report to them now. Period,” Miller said of CENT. “Basically, your burglaries and your car thefts, there’s always drugs attached. If you’ve got a team work-

ing on this and tracking stuff down, it helps the community more.”

Dickerson said CENT is “actively investigating a number of street crimes and narcotics offenses,” and will rely on the public’s help to identify problem areas.