It might have seemed like a slow night for the officers of the Elwood, Indiana Police Department, but to an outsider it was a riveting Tuesday.
Elwood is a rural town about 40 miles North of Indianapolis with a population of 8,500 people, and in five hours on a weeknight in January, there were at least seven traffic stops, three arrests, and one tip about a possible meth lab.
But the action does not find the officers, they are actively looking for it, because as the opioid epidemic strikes the entire country, this one community is trying to use the power of law enforcement to curb the crisis.
“It’s how we get drugs off the street,” said Elwood Police captain of patrol Kyle Comer. “People don’t understand sometimes why we’re constantly out here stopping vehicles for small violations, and some people get angry about that, but one thing I’d urge you is we are trying to keep your community safe and that’s how we do it.”
And the numbers prove how pro-active the officers are. In 2017, Elwood had an arrest rate of 12 percent, which is almost four times higher than the national average in 2016.
And over 70 percent of the arrests were directly related to drugs, though Comer says even arrests that are not explicitly because of drug use or possession usually involve drugs too.
"It's not just a drug issue, it leads to, in my opinion, almost every type of crime," Comer said.
The town of Elwood is the second largest in Madison County, where the fatal drug overdose rate is one of the highest in the state and is higher than the average rate in 40 other states.
“Our main thing is methamphetamine. I know that heroin hit a lot of the county, it hit Elwood for a brief time, but for some whatever reason it didn’t stick and they went back to the methamphetamine," said Elwood chief of police Jason Brizendine.
And Comer said most of the time, officers find illegal drugs through routine traffic stops.
For example, Elwood officers pulled over a vehicle because the light over their license plate was out, which is illegal in Indiana, but when the officers opened the door to the car they could smell marijuana.
This led to the arrest of both the driver and the passenger since marijuana is still illegal in Indiana.
And in the small town, officers will often remember and see repeat offenders, which they said helps them keep an eye on people who have abused drugs in the past.
“We get to know the people and the clientele. Unfortunately, we have what you would call frequent flyers. We deal with the same people quite a bit over and over. We get to know them and get to know what they drive, so when we see them out and about we already have reasons to stop them," said Comer.
Recognizing vehicles of these “frequent flyers” helped Comer pull over a driver with a suspended license and a history of drug abuse.
“About 4 months ago he overdosed,” Comer said. “We responded to a gas station where he was a wheel slumper, or passed out behind the wheel. And he ended up getting transported to the hospital, but I don’t’ know that he will admit that he has an addiction but we’ve had circumstances or run-ins with him in the last year or so that would lead me to believe that he does.”
Brizendine said he blames what he thinks are lax laws for criminals found guilty of possessing narcotics or other drugs as the reason for so many repeat offenders.
“Some of the repeat offenders we get they go away for just a little bit if they even go away at all." said Brizendine. “Our parents always told us there are consequences for your actions, and I think by limiting some of that and making it not so strict, it kind of just gives people a free pass sometimes."
To anyone living outside of Elwood, the police activity might seem excessive, but the town’s citizens say they have seen a positive change in the community because of it.
“There has been massive change in five years as far as issues. I haven’t personally seen a needle laying around anywhere for probably three years and I would see before this a needle here a needle there, burnt foil, stuff like this. A bottle that had done the shake stuff to do the meth, and I haven’t seen those in two or three years,” said Matt Spivey-Bevington, lifelong Elwood resident and a local business owner.
But in order to continue fighting the epidemic, Brizendine said law enforcement will need help.
"It’s going to take a lot of effort from different sides. It can’t just be law enforcement because again, all we can do is get people put into the system, like making arrests and getting into the system where they can get certain treatment opportunities. That has to be carried over once it’s way past our side of law enforcement," he said.