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Sessions Talks Opioids, Links To Crime During Visit To Louisville

The rates of violent crime and opioid abuse across the country are unacceptable, and Kentucky is no exception, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Tuesday during a speech in Louisville.

Drug addiction begets violent crime and both require local and federal efforts to reverse rising trends, he said. He praised intelligence efforts in Louisville that draw on federal and local resources to combat violent criminals.

Sessions also expressed surprise at the number of doctors and pharmacists who illegally dole out opioids, which he said contributes to addiction rates. He announced a 45-day "surge" in focus by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agents, diversion investigators and intelligence research specialists to zero in on prescribers and pharmacists.

"The fundamental thing is serious criminals have to be dealt with seriously, that's going to be our goal and we're going to be working with state and local departments to identify the most dangerous people," Sessions said.

He spoke to law enforcement officials, attorneys and the news media at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Louisville, hours ahead of President Donald Trump's first State of the Union address.

One of the people invited to to the Capitol speech as a guest of the President and First Lady is New Mexico police officer Ryan Holets, who with his wife adopted a baby from opioid-addicted parents, the White House announced Monday.

The adoption demonstrated "breaking down walls between drug addicts and police officers to help save lives," the White House statement said.

Drug overdose deaths rose more than 14 percent from June 2016 to June 2017, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were 5,306 deaths from opioid overdoses in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio in 2016. Those three states had a rate of opioid-related deaths that was double the national average.

Chris Evans, the special agent in charge of the DEA field division in Louisville, declined to share details about the surge announced by Sessions following the speech. He said it is a national program that will not result in more agents in the region, but rather a shift in focus using data to guide operations.

"That's something which is in the initial stages," Evans said. "We're just going through the process of how we're going to do that, how to implement that."

Outside the U.S. Attorney's office on West Broadway, a handful of protesters stood in the bright sunlight with signs opposing mass incarceration and promoting marijuana.

The last protester standing was Crystal Spencer, a 20-year old sophomore communications student at the University of Louisville.

She said she didn't expect Sessions to see her sign. But she was pleased to see passing cars honk in what she considered to be approval of her message.

"I just want everybody else to get the message across like, 'Hey, Jeff Sessions is here right now in your city,'" Spencer said. "'He implemented some very discriminatory policies ... and the whole Trump administration has. I hope you guys are aware this is happening.'"

Spencer said she questions Sessions' methods for reducing crime and drug addiction, saying she was concerned he just wanted to increase police presence and put more people in jail. She said she does not plan to watch the State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

Louisville DEA Field Office Update

Two months ago, Sessions announced the creation of a new field division for the DEA in Louisville.

Jim Scott, resident agent in charge for the local field office, said operations started here on January 1. He clarified earlier reports that suggested about 90 special agents and 130 task force officers would focus on Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

That many enforcement officials were already based throughout the region, but prior to the reorganization that led to the opening of the Louisville division, reported to field offices in other cities, he said.

"They're still going to be in the same cities doing the same thing, it's just going to be a realignment as to where they report," Scott said.

That change aims to better link the DEA's efforts to the structure of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as with Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking, a Justice Department program that started here in 2014, he said.

With $150,000 in funding from the Justice Department to be used over two years, the DEA, Louisville Metro Police and the U.S. Attorney's office will be able to track overdose deaths in Jefferson County as well as target and prosecute dealers, Scott said. That funding comes from a national initiative and will help cover expenses related to anti-heroin efforts.

In Louisville, the DEA has 11 special agents and 11 deputized task force officers, Scott said. Those figures should not change significantly, though more agents or officers may be added throughout the region. The hiring of about 25 to 30 administrative workers is likely to increase the DEA's presence in Louisville over the next couple of years, he said.

Amina Elahi is LPM's City Editor. Email Amina at aelahi@lpm.org.