Tom Bergin says he has spent almost all of his professional life in law enforcement going after drug sellers, producers and users. One incident early in his career left a lasting impression.

As a patrol officer with the Clatsop County Sheriff's Department, he had pulled over a motorist near the intersection of U.S. Highways 101 and 26 south of Seaside.

In the car he found a 23-year-old man and 12-year-old girl. Both were heroin users and the girl was pregnant.

After arresting the man, Bergin phoned the girl's father who, with a string of obscenities, said he wanted nothing to do with her.

Bergin said he hung up and realized that he couldn't send the girl home to what was likely an abusive situation, and so she ended up in protective custody.

Now, he says, he hopes that if he hasn't been able to do anything else in the constant struggle with drugs it's to have prevented one more girl from being pregnant, on heroin and with nowhere to go.

"I've spent 90 percent of my career working drugs from one end to the other of the spectrum and sometimes I came home and asked myself 'Why am I doing this? Why I am I beating my head against a wall?'" he said. "And then I see my young girls and ... if I could just stop a couple of kids from using drugs, that's why."

A daily fight

Drug and alcohol abuse is a problem that communities, families and individuals try to ignore or choose to avoid. For law enforcement, however, ignoring substance abuse is impossible. Almost every day, police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers have to deal with people who are a danger to themselves and others. All because they are addicted to drugs and alcohol.

The officers' views are cultivated with having to deal with the problem in its rawest state. And they say they'll continue to have to deal with the problem unless major societal changes are made to stem substance abuse.

Bergin is now chief deputy for the Clatsop County Sheriff's Department. Before his promotion, he led the county's interagency narcotics taskforce, which has drawn on the resources of the sheriff's department, Oregon State Police and the county's municipal police departments.

During his years leading that force, he watched the age of drug users go down. There are still plenty of people supporting the illicit market for the production and distribution of drugs.

Clatsop County Sgt. Mark Whisler, the current head of the taskforce, said after working drug cases exclusively he's convinced that 90 percent of crime can be traced directly to drugs.

And alcohol always seemed to be a factor in incidents he handled as a patrol officer, especially domestic fights. "Generally one or the other or both had been drinking," he said.

Drugs, however, have more of a direct impact on crimes such as car clouts, theft, assault and child abuse and neglect because they can dramatically change people's behavior.

When someone gets hooked on methamphetamine, his or her life can become so out of focus that all they are concerned about is getting more of the drug, Whisler said.

"When that steals your soul, your whole waking hour now is finding the money or the means to get the drugs," he said.

After all their money is spent on meth, Whisler said users most likely turn to crime. As their perspective is so altered by the drug, that's a relatively easy move for an addict to make.

But the damage done by drugs is not restricted simply to user. Whisler said he's seen families ripped apart because parents, siblings and spouses just can't deal with their addicted loved one.

"Parents can have a son who's 30- to 40-years-old and can't cope with life," he said. "They've probably prayed and done everything they can for these kids."

Budget cuts have hampered officers as the task force has been reduced in the past few years. Currently it is running with a skeleton crew, with only a couple of officers.

Officers try to become "street sweepers" who go after the street corner dealer in the hopes of cutting off the area's most immediate supply point, Whisler said. If in the course of an investigation, detectives hit on a lead that could take them to a major marijuana growing operation or a large-scale cocaine dealer, he said they turn the investigation over to federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Astoria Police Officer Ken Hansen, whose beat includes Astoria's schools, said he has seen a dramatic increase in the use of methamphetamine. What is troubling him is teenagers as young as 14 using the drug.

"I'm hearing about meth now to where I've never heard about meth before," he said.

Astoria has seen a marked increase in the drug. Where cocaine was once the more popular stimulant, Hansen said methamphetamine has replaced it. He said part of the local trade can be traced back to the rural Seattle area, which is regarded as a focal point for methamphetamine production and distribution.

"I don't know if it's our people going up there and contacting them and bringing it down, or if they're coming down here," he said.

Astoria Police Department is not part of the county's task force. While it had been, budget cuts have prevented the department from pledging an officer full time to it, chief Rob Deu Pree has said. Drug arrests are still made by the department, but only if in the course of other police work an officer comes across narcotics.

Whisler said the county's task force could use as many officers as possible. He could dedicate at least one or two detectives to just work Astoria, he said.

Addiction creates recurring problem

Part of the problem with drug- and alcohol-related crime is that because it's based in addiction, people with problems will continue to have run-ins with the law as they continue to drink too much or use drugs.

Lt. Duane Stanton, area commander for OSP, said one of the biggest frustrations for troopers is having to deal with the same repeat drunk drivers.

"They know that every day they are concentrating on the effort that the most important thing they can do is get them off the road," he said. "There's a significant frustration in dealing with these people once they go in and out of the justice system."

Clatsop County recently witnessed the trial and conviction of Kalen Painter who killed an elderly woman while he was driving drunk. He had been arrested twice previously for driving under the influence of intoxicants.

Stanton said that type of case is why OSP will remain committed to getting drunk drivers off the road - because they represent one of the deadliest threats to other motorists.

"I'm not so sure if someone deserves three times to go through the system," he said.

To help stop that potential cycle, Stanton said there needs to be some sort of increased educational effort at the secondary or primary grades to keep children from growing up into substance abusers.

Often parents will overindulge with alcohol or use drugs in front of the children. Stanton wishes there was some sort of positive reinforcement.

"There needs to be something in education to counterbalance the negative choices of parents," he said.

But even with the ongoing Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program that tries to teach children to stay away from drugs and alcohol abuse, people continue to buy drugs and drink too much.

Part of the reason is because addiction is so powerful, said Deu Pree, who teaches a course at Clatsop Community College on drugs and crime.

"The drug abuser starts off taking the drug and ... doing that with self determination," he said. "Once they are hooked on the drug they really lose the ability to deal with it."

To police, the success of treatment really is a question of whether the drug abuser who has lost his or her ability to deal with life by becoming dependent on the drug has the strength to defeat it themselves.

"The problem with treatment is, the data doesn't look very good," Deu Pree said. Only 40 percent of people who go through treatment programs are successful, he said.

But programs are becoming better and police officers are beginning to learn that if they make some effort to be involved with people they arrest for drugs they increase the chances that person will be successful.

Instead of just turning drug and alcohol abusers over to the system, officers may occasionally make a contact with the person just to check if they're still using or drinking.

Chief Deputy Bergin agrees. He said when he was with the drug task force that he would tell team members they should try and do more than just arrest people. He has even driven drug offenders to Portland himself to get them to treatment.

If he didn't, these people wouldn't get that one chance many of them need to try and regain control of their lives, he said. And, he added, most drug addicts desperately want that chance - they just have lost the ability to go after it.

"I've never met a person that wanted to be on drugs, well one, but I still don't believe him," he said.

Society's problem

Deu Pree said a bigger problem with drugs is that they remain "socially acceptable."

He said a major dent in the drug problem won't be made until people make it socially unconscionable to use drugs or know a drug user.

"We feel sorry for our drug abusers, but we don't feel that they are bad people," he said.

That opinion was shared by those who cruise highways looking for drunk drivers or go undercover and hit the streets looking to bust a dealer. If there was less tolerance for the drug and alcohol abuser, law officers wouldn't have nearly as much work.

Whisler believes giving drug offenders a chance with probation and treatment is a good idea to see if an individual can help themselves. Yet too often people can't distance themselves from drugs.

"In such a small town like Astoria, it's very easy to get back into narcotics," he said. "If a meth user hangs out with meth users he will continue to use meth."

If the culture that supports drug users was to be eliminated, police say the drug problem would be dramatically decreased.

Whisler said while working the drug beat, his perspective of the world has altered, because he has to narrow his focus to mimic the small percentage of people whose one goal is getting drugs.

But he does it because he believes it's worth it to the many people who don't use drugs.

"I know that the majority of people are good people," he said.


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