To call their work a “cat-and-mouse” game of the highest stakes wouldn’t be a stretch of the truth.
The Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station’s Domestic Highway Enforcement Team is leading the nation for the largest amount of heroin seized roadside this year, according to Sheriff’s Station officials.
To date, the team has taken a street value of more than $80 million worth of drugs off the streets, according to Sgt. Dan Peacock, who leads the unit. Last year, their work resulted in the team taking 11 pounds of fentanyl in a single haul, the largest roadside seizure in the nation in 2017, during a traffic stop on a typical patrol.
Sheriff’s officials plan to keep the team’s operations, and what constitutes a typical patrol, under wraps as much as possible; however, The Signal was given access to members of the team, during a ride-along Thursday.
The team’s fentanyl seizure last year started off as a normal interaction, according to Deputy Adam Halloran, who’s been on the team for about two and a half years.
However, from a mixture of situational awareness, caution and training in what to look for, are part of what led to a record haul for the team.
The training that deputies receive as part of membership in the elite unit, as well as his experience, taught Halloran to notice certain cues, which played a role in him looking for and then spotting a hidden compartment with the fentanyl stashed inside.
“It’s a sense of relief,” Halloran said, describing the feeling he gets when he finds a large quantity of narcotics, “to know that we took more than a thousand doses of heroin off the streets — that saved lives.”
Part of the job Halloran enjoys, he said, is “solving the puzzle” when he’s hitting the highway in his patrol SUV.
“This is just flat-out what real police work is all about,” said Deputy Mike McPheeters, describing their mission as somewhat different than a typical patrol because of their “enhanced” focus on certain activities.
When Halloran pulled over the sedan for the record seizure of fentanyl — an extremely powerful synthetic opioid used to cut heroin, and believed to be involved in the series of deadly overdoses locally last year — the puzzle didn’t take too long to piece together.
“A lot of it is active listening,” Halloran said, describing how he looks for things that might be amiss, nothing he really wanted to mention, of course. Deputies see how criminal operations can change if too many of officers’ tactics are revealed — but there are usually clues.
“It’s doing a lot of critical analysis on what you’re hearing and what you’re seeing,” he said.
Even though the statistics detail millions of dollars taken from criminals and pounds of drugs seized off the streets, the biggest impact for Lewis comes from the more personal aspect of the team’s operations, fighting human trafficking on Southern California’s highways.
The team has saved six women from human trafficking situations, and what stays with Lewis are things like hearing the relief in a teen runaway’s voice after being reunited with family, he said.
“The Domestic Highway Enforcement Team was formed in response to an opioid overdose epidemic that is affecting the Santa Clarita Valley and plaguing our nation’s community,” Lewis said in a statement about the team Thursday. “The team’s purpose is to make an impact in saving lives, whether it be through narcotic and firearm seizures, or rescuing human trafficking victims.”