The Delaware County Drug Task Force recently completed its third major, long-running investigation since District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer took office in 2020.
Stollsteimer said Friday he had called on Criminal Investigations Division Chief James Nolan IV to reinvigorate the task force as part of his vision for the office, but Nolan this week said he couldn’t do it alone. The task force’s success, he says, is largely due to cooperation between law enforcement agencies and a change in philosophy in the way investigations are conducted.
“With narcotics investigations, we decided to do more long-term than street trafficking,” Nolan said. “Is there traffic at street level? Sure. But many more are inside bars or places where we have to use other methods to get in, whether it’s undercover work or surveillance. We have changed our methods quite a bit.
Without going into the details of these methods, Nolan said the nature of the drug industry and law enforcement is a cyclical pattern of ever-changing methods to thwart each other. The drug industry tries to stay one step ahead of law enforcement, law enforcement changes tactics to make arrests, these tactics are then exposed and the drug industry s adapt accordingly. It’s an ever-evolving mission and the pace is only increasing as technology advances in tandem.
“It’s dizzying to see how quickly things change,” Nolan said. “The idea of cash apps 10 years ago wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t even a thought. The idea that I could just send money to someone on the other side from the room or across the world, this kind of technology has really changed our investigative practices. Every day there is a new application, a new function, a new technology.”
The task force includes approximately half of the county’s police departments and approximately 45 officers at any given time, as well as state and federal partners such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Agency and Pennsylvania State Police. .
But instead of having the DEA come to a particular area to solve a drug problem, Nolan said it’s much better for an officer from that municipality to identify the problem and bring it to the attention of the task force, who can then coordinate and work out a plan to tackle the problem.
“Having assets all the time, they can develop a suspect or a suspicious operation just on the visual evidence of what the police in this city see,” Nolan said. “So let’s say we have someone in the county drug task force in this city, and their patrol division sees suspicious activity at a location, they’ll escalate it to our asset, who will then send it in the chain to supervision here and a work will evolve like this.It can come from complaints from citizens, it can come from the city administration, in many ways.
Having those resources along with training from the Pennsylvania Narcotics Officers Association has made all the difference in conducting the kinds of detailed investigations that Nolan says have so far resulted in 27 arrests over the course of three major operations.
The first, in August 2021, included the arrest of 10 people and the seizure of nearly $140,000 in cash, Nolan said. Two more have taken place this year, one in February and one last week. The February bust involved seven suspected dealers while officers caught 13 people on June 9. A total of 20 firearms were also removed from the streets along with various vehicles and significant quantities of various narcotics.
Despite all the other changes happening in and around the drug game, the adage that guns and drugs go together doesn’t seem to have changed, Nolan noted. Nor was it possible to make deals to move up the industry ladder or solve other crimes the police might get stuck on.
“When you make these arrests, obviously there are people involved in the criminal element,” Nolan said. “With that comes solving other cases, whether it’s non-fatal shootings, homicides, robberies, any number of things that people involved in the drug world do, but we We don’t have any witnesses or evidence at the time. When you do a teardown like this, there are now 30 people who are likely to get information about other crimes.
Key to the task force’s success is sharing information in a more holistic approach, Nolan said, especially in the eastern part of the county where many smaller municipalities and their corresponding police forces pile on top of each other. others.
He pointed to an investigation led by former Sharon Hill detective Vincent Port, who recently joined the ranks of CID, where a group of criminals were engaged in crimes that crossed multiple borders of surrounding towns. None of these could have seemed linked to individual police departments working alone unless they collectively stood down and pooled information, Nolan said.
“One of the biggest things we take away from these county-wide task forces is that information is shared, intelligence is shared, you can find out something,” he said. “The city of Chester and Upper Darby are on opposite ends of the county and wouldn’t interact without something like this, where people would discuss which person involved in the crime lives where in the county. So if someone moved from, say, Eddystone to Darby Borough, without something like this operation, you wouldn’t know. When they share intelligence, that’s how you know who to focus on.
Nolan said consistency at the back with chases is another area that has changed philosophically. No longer assigning cases as they arise, Stollsteimer instead focused on having the same deputies and assistant district attorneys working in the same areas to foster institutional knowledge of the places and actors involved. .
Of course, not all arrests result in convictions, Nolan said. Sometimes it’s a fantastic defense job or a bad jury, or sometimes acquittals happen for no discernable reason. But even in those cases, suspects are at least locked up for several months in the justice system and commit no further crimes, Nolan said, and dangerous substances and weapons are still often confiscated and destroyed.
The task force then goes back to these cases to see what could be done better and tries to apply the lessons learned to the next investigation. All the police can hope to do is get enough information for prosecutors to secure the conviction, he said.
“The group of people that we have doing things across the county – from patrol officers to county-level investigations – are doing very well and keeping up to date as much as they can with the most up-to-date methods possible to make arrests and carry cases,” Nolan said. “I hope this philosophy and this operation will continue and that we will gain more ground on the crime.”