ATLANTA — Handcuffs couldn’t stop Jesse Thedford. From the back of a patrol car, the 32-year-old was able to slide behind the wheel of a Carroll County deputy’s car, according to police.
Ignoring commands to stop, Thedford instead drove toward deputies -- the same ones who had arrested him after finding methamphetamine in his pocket. One deputy fired a shot, striking and killing Thedford in one of Georgia’s 79 officer-involved shootings through Nov. 15 this year.
The number of shootings involving Georgia law enforcement officers this year will likely pass the number in 2017, and it has also been a deadlier year, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Law officials say drug use is one reason for the increase. One drug, in particular, has been a factor in nearly 20 percent of the fatal shootings involving officers since 2012: methamphetamine.
“I believe that many of the bizarre and very violent crimes that occur, the perpetrator is a meth user, and that’s from my experience,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It is a very destructive drug, and it causes violent behavior.”
Previously, investigators only had anecdotal evidence of the amount of meth on the streets and the violence it causes, Keenan said. But the GBI recently analyzed its records to get a more factual estimate of the problem. The agency’s autopsy reports, including toxicology results, for people killed by cops, show that meth is involved in about one in five officer-involved shootings.
The majority of those killed by Georgia police officers from 2012 until mid-November had drugs in their system, including cocaine, meth and marijuana, according to the GBI. Over that period, 188 people were killed by law enforcement and toxicology tests were performed in 173 of those cases. The tests found 124 were positive for a variety of drugs, and 35 -- about 19 percent -- were positive for meth.
Results are still pending on five additional cases, including Thedford’s.
Marijuana was the most common drug used by those in deadly altercations with police, followed by methamphetamine, GBI data showed.
And though illegal drugs are just one factor in officer-involved shootings, the data can be used by law enforcement agencies that train officers to de-escalate situations before the use of force is necessary.
“They could be high on methamphetamine,” Keenan said. “And that alone is not going to justify the officer using force, but it is a factor to be considered.”
METH IN METRO ATLANTA
The GBI crime lab, which handles drug testing for most of the state’s police departments, sees more than twice as much meth as other drugs. In 2016 and 2017, meth was the leading cause of drug deaths, passing cocaine from previous years, the GBI said.
In Atlanta’s in-town neighborhoods, meth isn’t the typical drug of choice, according to police. But travel a few miles into metro suburbs, and it can be found everywhere.
Methamphetamine isn’t new: it has been around nearly 100 years since it was first developed in Japan. During World War II, it was used to keep troops awake and ready for battle, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Experts now believe it is more common than ever.
Sgt. Josh Liedke, who runs the Marietta Police Department’s Crime Interdiction Unit, said heroin previously was among the top illegal drugs seized during investigations, but that has changed.
“We’re seeing less seizures of heroin and we’re seeing more seizures of meth,” he said. “We seem to see heroin trickling off a tad. But as soon as we attack one, the other starts creeping up.”
In 2016, the Gwinnett County Police Department’s special investigations unit seized approximately 262 pounds of meth, worth an estimated $14 million, and arrested 78 people, according to Lt. Eric Wilkerson. The following year, the unit recovered 344 pounds of meth, leading to 68 arrests, he said.
The numbers for 2018 are expected to be similar.
It’s not just suburban areas where meth is widespread. It’s also a problem in rural areas, according to law enforcement agencies.
“Meth is the predominant drug right now in north Georgia,” Phil Price, commander of the Cherokee Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad, said. “It’s readily available and it’s commonly used by those in the drug community.”
The active ingredient in meth is pseudoephedrine, found in many over-the-counter cold medications. When combined and heated with other easy-to-find chemicals -- which weren’t intended for human consumption -- it doesn’t take a scientist to make meth, according to experts.
But chemicals used to make meth are volatile and toxic, leading to explosions for those without chemistry knowledge, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition, the fumes are dangerous for others in the area. Meth can be found in a variety of forms, which can be ingested by swallowing, snorting, smoking, or injecting it.
“There’s so many different ways to make meth, you just don’t know what you’re getting,” Liedke says.
In recent years, meth labs operating in homes and even rolling meth labs in cars frequently made headlines in metro Atlanta.
But more recently, there isn’t a need for users to make their own meth, Keenan said. It’s now being manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into the U.S., and investigators believe that drug cartels are supplying Georgia with meth that’s purer than what is made here -- and it’s cheaper.
“It’s like liquor. It’s cheaper to buy it from a Mexican source,” Price said. “At the end of the day, you really don’t have people going out and getting the ingredients to make meth.”
CAN OFFICERS TRAIN FOR METH?
Keenan, the GBI’s director, said many bizarre and violent crimes that occur involve a meth user. But tracking data, including officer-involved shooting deaths, can help law enforcement agencies better prepare to avoid future violence.
“I think the officer is better prepared to respond when they have an understanding of what they’re up against,” Keenan said.
Like others in the metro area, Marietta officers attend a week of crisis intervention training as part of their ongoing education. The crisis training focuses on both mental health and drugs, including how to identify warning signs that someone is under the influence of drugs. Officers learn de-escalation techniques to calm people: ways to hopefully stop a situation without violence. Whether someone is having a mental health breakdown or has been using alcohol or drugs, the tactics are similar, officers said.
“It may be a different substance, but the way you deal with it is the same across the board,” Price said.
But the effects of meth on a person’s demeanor is completely unpredictable and creates a particular challenge for officers. Violence and paranoia are common among users.
“These people are physically aggressive and paranoid, and they’ll perceive things that aren’t reality,” Price said.
Meth users may also be desensitized to pain, Price said, so using a Taser may not affect them. If other tactics don’t work, officers may have to use their weapons.
Despite the emphasis of the Trump administration on the opioid crisis, Keenan calls meth an “international assault on the U.S.” And he sees no signs that meth use is slowing down.
“We traded one evil for another,” he said. “Fire and explosions and toxic chemicals for ultra-pure methamphetamine.”
Investigators may not be able to keep the dangerous drug out of their communities. But local, state and federal law enforcement officers aren’t giving up. Every drug bust gets the dangerous drug out of more people’s hands.
In August, after a nearly year-long investigation, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration -- along with metro Atlanta agencies and the Georgia State Patrol -- busted up a major drug ring. More than $5 million worth of cocaine and 250 pounds of methamphetamine along with $850,000 in cash was recovered and 15 people were arrested.
DEA Atlanta agent Robert J. Murphy said the drug bust involved one of several Mexican cartels operating in Atlanta.
“Another successful law enforcement success targeting the Mexican organizations targeting this poison in our community,” Murphy said.
MORE ON METH (Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse)
- Methamphetamine is usually a white, bitter-tasting powder or a pill. Crystal methamphetamine looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks
- Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug that is chemically similar to amphetamine, a drug used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy
- People can take methamphetamine by smoking, swallowing, snorting, or injecting it
- Short-term health effects include increased wakefulness and physical activity, decreased appetite, and increased blood pressure and body temperature
- Long-term health effects include the risk of contracting HIV and hepatitis; severe dental problems; intense itching, leading to skin sores from scratching; violent behavior; and paranoia.
- Methamphetamine is highly addictive. When people stop using it, withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, fatigue, severe depression, psychosis, and intense drug cravings.
- The most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction so far are behavioral therapies. There are currently no government-approved medications to treat meth addiction.
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