Checking how close to home the Long Island heroin epidemic has hit was designed to be as easy for the public as checking e-mail, but some are concerned that even vague descriptions of drug busts can compromise the intended goal of combating the scourge.
A heroin possession arrest in Mount Sinai. A 17-year-old girl gets picked up for dealing heroin in Massapequa. No names are given and the only added information is a dot on a map that pinpoints the neighborhood where the arrest was made. Still, a year after setting up a program to share such snippets of info, questions persist over who is really taking advantage of a pair of drug mapping indexes that were established when Natalie’s Law—named for 18-year-old Natalie Ciappa of Massapequa, who died in a high-profile heroin overdose case—was passed in Nassau and Suffolk counties last December.
“I believe it’s a double-edged sword,” Detective Lt. William Burke, commanding officer of Suffolk police narcotics squad, said at a hearing before the Suffolk County Legislature’s Public Safety Committee in October. The lawmakers called the hearing on Natalie’s Law to see how well the website it created—modeled after online databases that map where sex offenders live—has been working.
“The bad guys are much more interested in it,” Burke said. “I don’t know how to make this thing work exactly as perceived.”
Nassau County lawmakers had no plans to hold a similar hearing to review their version of the law, which also includes mailing school districts to alert them when an arrest is made (Suffolk backed off of a similar proposal), but pointed to the county’s heroin summit in July as proof that they are studying the issue.
Burke worries that drug dealers utilize the info so as to avoid doing drug deals where police indicate they have made arrests. “When we put stuff up there sometimes it complicates what we do,” he said.
Suffolk’s top drug cop made the comments in response to Suffolk Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip), who asked if the legislature should adjust Natalie’s Law or “just leave it alone.” Barraga had expressed concern at the time of the vote that “pushers will use the information to their advantage.”
Given how often heroin addicts lead investigators to their dealers, police prefer not to name who has been arrested so as to not tip off the suspect they plan to arrest next, although occasionally they do announce arrests in bulk. The Suffolk Heroin Task Force boasted more than 100 arrests in July and sources say another update is planned for the near future—although officials usually only name the big fish, not every suspect.
Suffolk police did not say why the Suffolk Drug Mapping Index only lists less than 70 heroin-related arrests and hasn’t been updated since March. The Nassau Drug Mapping Index lists 345 heroin arrests this year and neither Nassau police nor Suffolk police could provide figures for how many people have logged on to their respective drug-map websites.
A Nassau police spokesman says there are no plans to make another bulk heroin arrest announcement, although both counties have released arrest info on a handful of alleged dealers in recent weeks and months. The last mass-update from Nassau police was in February, when they announced nearly 100 heroin arrests.
Burke noted that the website wasn’t all bad. “It’s done a lot to get the word out,” he said, adding that more still needs to be done to raise awareness that heroin is an issue. “Natalie’s Law is the first step.”
As a father himself, he suggests diligent parenting. “The three Ws,” he said, are what parents need to insist their kids share with them at all times. As in: Where they are, what they’re doing and who they’re with. Keeping prescription pain medication out of medicine cabinets where they can easily be stolen is a good idea too, Burke said.
The committee’s chairman, Legis. Jack Eddington (I-Medford), said he wants updates biannually.
Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsely (D-Babylon), who proposed the law and sits on the committee, suggested that the county advertise the website to further its reach and effectiveness. “People were denying that this was an issue but now they know because of Natalie’s Law,” he said.
—With Michael Powers