Drug and narcotic offenses increased in the Lynchburg area by nearly 42 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to an annual Virginia State Police crime report.
The surge in drug offenses outpaces a statewide increase of 16 percent and comes amid a nationwide opioid epidemic. Drug offenses can range anywhere from simple possession to manufacturing to felony distribution.
In Lynchburg, city police recorded a 42 percent jump in drug and narcotic offenses, from 740 to 1,054 between 2016 and 2017, but that figure may have been artificially inflated after the department changed reporting systems, according to Lynchburg Police Department Capt. Nick Leger.
The department shifted to a new reporting system from an outdated one to better adhere to state and federal reporting standards. Leger said the shift to the “more standardized” system means some previously recorded drug offenses are now recorded as multiple offenses.
For example, if an officer discovered someone possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia in 2016 the episode may have been recorded as a single offense. The switch to a new system in September 2017 requires similar incidents to be recorded as two separate offenses: drug possession and drug paraphernalia possession.
Leger said the department recorded 63 drug paraphernalia offenses in 2016 and then saw the number rise to 250 in 2017. With drug paraphernalia offenses removed from the equation, LPD’s total drug and narcotic offenses rose about 20 percent over the same time period, Leger said.
“That puts us closer in line to the state average of 16 percent,” he said. “[A 42 percent increase] is still indicative of an increase but it doesn’t necessarily tell the whole picture.”
Though the city is experiencing an increase in overdoses, Leger said the department does not see opioid use as a main driver behind the rise in drug offenses.
Leger said the department made no explicit effort to increase drug enforcement, but it did increase community engagement, which may have encouraged citizens to increase reports of drug activity.
“There’s been a concerted effort to partner with the community more to tackle drug-related issues in neighborhoods,” he said. “Other than that we’re always focused, [to] some degree, on drug enforcement, that’s just one of our main roles because that tends to have an impact on quality of life.”
Bedford County saw the most dramatic rise in drug offenses in the area, with a reported 118 percent hike in recorded drug and narcotic offenses by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office between 2016 and 2017.
Bedford County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mike Miller said much of the increase could be explained by rising opioid and methamphetamine use in the county.
Like in Lynchburg, Bedford County’s surge in drug offenses was not the result of an increased emphasis on drug arrests but was helped, in part, Miller said, by a rise in citizen cooperation with law enforcement.
“We started making and seeing more arrests in 2017 because of our interactions with the community,” he said. “Our community has been really helping us.”
Miller said the sheriff’s office also made an effort to train deputies to spot “indicators” of seemingly hidden drug activity.
An increase in recorded drug and narcotic offenses by state police also played a role in the overall rise in offenses across the region. Between 2016 and 2017 offenses rose 15 percent, from 230 to 266.
Virginia State Police spokesperson Susan Rowland declined to explain the increase, saying the agency does not “provide insight on any increase or decrease in the statistics.”
In Campbell County, recorded drug offenses rose 28 percent between the county’s four law enforcement agencies: the sheriff’s office, the Altavista Police Department, the Brookneal Police Department and the state police. Appomattox County saw a similar increase of 20 percent, while Amherst County offenses rose 10 percent.
Nelson County’s total drug offenses jumped 38 percent. The county’s sheriff’s office saw a nearly 24 percent rise while the state police recorded a 104 percent hikein Nelson County.
In May, the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office charged two Lovingston residents with distribution charges stemming from the accidental overdose deaths of two women in the county. In a statement, Sheriff David Hill said he hopes the arrests will “send a clear message that this activity will not be tolerated in Nelson County” and that his office “will continue to actively stem the sale and use of illegal narcotics in our community.”
Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.