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3 surveillance tactics to find and stop opioid dealers

When responding to opioid overdose calls, police investigators can deploy these tactics to locate drug dealers


Law enforcement must find better ways to stop the flow of drugs on the streets and effectively target dealers.

Photo/In Public Safety

By Leischen Stelter, Editor of In Public Safety at American Military University

It’s estimated that 115 people die every day in the United States from overdosing on opioids, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. However, this number does not account for the many more people who overdose but do not die, some of them overdosing repeatedly.

“I’ve seen this happen with the same person as many as seven times in a 24-hour period,” said James Deater, who spent more than 27 years as a trooper with the Maryland State Police. “The same people are overdosing over and over again because these drugs are so addictive and they can’t stop themselves from going right back to their dealer.”

Responding to the opioid crisis has been enormously taxing on law enforcement agencies. “For the last two years, before I recently retired, our unit was running heroin overdoses every day,” said Deater. “We were required to respond to every fatal and non-fatal overdose, which takes up a lot of manpower and hours.”

To make matters worse, officers were spending a lot of time responding and completing related paperwork, but not enough time investigating the case or trying to locate and arrest the dealers who were selling the drugs. Law enforcement must find better ways to stop the flow of drugs on the streets and effectively target dealers.

Effective Ways to Target Dealers

During American Military University’s Law Enforcement Webinar Series, Deater offered some solutions during a webinar entitled “Law Enforcement Methods and Tactics to Combat the Opioid Crisis.” He started the webinar by presenting his theory of how the day of an overdose victim unfolds:

  1. Buy drugs
  2. Take drugs in the street/house/mall
  3. Overdose
  4. EMS and/or police respond and gives them Narcan
  5. Go to emergency room
  6. Released
  7. Go back to their dealer
  8. Repeat

While tragic, these steps provide an excellent investigative opportunity for police. “The victim is all you need to find the dealer,” he said. Deater outlined a few recommendations for what police should do when responding to an overdose.

1. Collect Cell Phone Data

First, if a victim has a cell phone on them, download the contents. If your agency doesn’t have the technology to do that, Deater recommended contacting the local High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) unit. Helpful information from the phone may include text messages, contact lists, GPS locations, social media accounts, and more.

While police are finding less and less information on phones – or no phones at all – because drug users often ask others to take the victim’s phone or delete the contents if they overdose, it’s still a practice worth trying, said Deater. But just downloading the information isn’t enough. Deater encouraged officers to share the information with other agencies including HIDTA units and federal partners who can run numbers through databases to draw connections.

In addition, when documenting the overdose, Deater encouraged officers to take a picture of the victim. Officers should also note information related to the incident such as the car they were in, the address where they were found, or anyone who was with them. These details can start to paint a picture of who this person is and provide clues about the dealer.

2. Put Surveillance on the Victim

While Deater acknowledged that putting surveillance on an overdose victim is not necessarily a popular tactic, he attested to its effectiveness. “When we started following victims, we were able to find the three or four dealers who were responsible for the vast majority of overdoses in that particular area,” he said. “But the only way we found them was by watching the victim go straight back to them.”

One of the benefits of following a victim is that, first of all, you’ll likely prevent another overdose and save the life of that person. “By following the victim, you have a chance to identify the dealer and possibly even witness a drug deal, which would allow you to arrest the dealer and hopefully lead to a felony conviction,” said Deater.

The initial reaction of many officers and leadership is that surveying a victim requires even more manpower. However, Deater argues that this tactic often cuts investigation time by half or more, and, more importantly, often leads to a positive outcome.

“Many officers don’t have time to conduct an honest investigation because they can’t even keep up with the overdose calls,” he said. “But if agencies allow officers to follow victims, more often than not that person is going to lead officers straight back to the dealer in a matter of hours.”

3. Electronic Surveillance Options

When manpower isn’t an option, there are electronic ways officers can track victims. Deater, who specializes in wiretapping and electronic surveillance techniques, presented several fairly simple tactics for officers to track victims.

After officers download information from a victim’s phone, Deater encourages officers to leave the phone with the victim. With the victim’s phone number, they can call iConectiv, find out the service provider, and, with a court order, ping that phone’s GPS receiver to track the victim’s location. While court orders can sometimes be difficult and not all service providers will give information, it’s something officers can try fairly easily.

Another way to track victims is through their social media accounts. Officers should search for victim’s social media accounts, either on their own phones directly or by doing a simple Google search of their name. “You may think no one is going to put their illegal activity on Twitter or Instagram, but you’d be wrong. They absolutely do,” he said.

“More than half our wiretaps were watching social media sites and we found these people were Tweeting codes and pictures,” continued Deater. “If they have their location services on, it will show you exactly where they are.” Monitoring social media accounts is especially easy to do since it does not require a court order.

Deater shared several other law enforcement-sensitive tactics during the full webinar. He noted that while these tactics won’t eradicate the opioid crisis, they are effective ways that officers can identify, locate and arrest dealers who are selling highly dangerous and addictive drugs.

About the Author: Leischen Stelter is the editor of In Public Safety, an American Military University sponsored website. She has spent six years writing articles on issues and trends relevant to professionals in law enforcement, fire services, emergency management and national security. To contact her, email For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

In Public Safety is an American Military University (AMU) sponsored blog that features analysis and commentary on issues relating to law enforcement, emergency management, fire services and national intelligence. This blog features in-depth discussions authored by leading experts with decades of experience in their field. To stay updated on blog posts and other news relevant to these sectors, please follow us on Facebook by “liking” AMU & APUS Public Safety Programs. You can also follow us on our sector-specific Twitter accounts: @AMUPoliceEd, @AMUFireEd, @AMUDisasterEd, @AMUIntelStudies