WATSEKA — Mark Harris has heard the citizens’ concerns. The Watseka patrolman knows the city has a problem with narcotic drugs.
Last week, the Watseka Police Department responded to three drug overdoses within 12 hours. Police believe a bad batch of heroin has made its way through the area. It has been unsettling for residents.
“Citizens in the community are complaining about the drug problem,” Harris said. “We’ve had quite a few overdoses. Drug dealers are getting better at hiding drugs in vehicles. We need to do something about it.”
Harris has done something about it. For months, the patrolman researched the benefits of starting a K-9 unit. Last Thursday, the Watseka City Council voted 7-1 to purchase a canine and a 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe for $65,000.
“It’s another tool we will be able to use to help combat the influx of narcotics coming into our community,” Police Chief Jeremy Douglas said. “Whatever we can do to be proactive and stay ahead of the wave is going to improve our chance of preventing a tragedy.”
‘It’s an epidemic’
Watseka Mayor John Allhands has kept tabs on the city’s drug situation. The mayor believes the issue has been amplified by recent flooding, cheap rental living units and the close proximity to a hospital.
“Like a lot of small towns, folks come in from bigger areas and think they can take advantage of the police,” Allhands said. “They think it’s tougher to get caught. We need all the tools we can get to counter the drug culture.”
The city is the hub of Iroquois County, where drug overdose deaths have doubled from five last year to 10 this year. That is a record for the county of about 28,000 people.
“I think people take more risks now that they know Narcan is there,” Iroquois County Coroner Bill Cheatum said. “They have that safety net. We get a lot of saves, but it’s a growing problem.”
Vonda Pruitt, the Iroquois County Health Department’s director of nursing, said fentanyl, an opiate about 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, has caused more overdoses in the county.
“It’s not going to be long before everyone knows someone who has a drug problem,” Pruitt said. “It hits home when you know somebody who is struggling with addiction. It’s an epidemic.”
That’s why the Watseka City Council did not wait to for the police department to raise $65,000 to form a K-9 unit.
A new dog in town
If all goes according to plan, Watseka will have Tucker, a 3-year-old German shepherd from the Czech Republic, patrolling its streets in December.
Harris started his canine handler training with Tucker on Monday morning at the Landheim Boarding and Training Center.
Tucker will improve the police department’s ability to detect drugs and receive probable cause to search vehicles. He also will search for missing people and evidence, in addition to performing school demonstrations. He will be available for neighboring police departments.
“If someone refuses to search, the air is free to search in Illinois,” said Kip Geyer, the training manager at Landheim. “A dog would give them probable cause to search if it indicates narcotics are in the vehicle. People often give up when they see a canine there. It creates less resistance. There is a deterrent factor, especially in drug trafficking when a dog is present.”
Tucker will live with Harris and his family.
While the city fronted the $65,000 to start a canine unit, the police department will continue to raise money to offset the cost. Several residents have already made donations, and some businesses plan on hosting fundraisers in the coming months.
“We want to make this program self-sufficient within a few years,” Douglas said. “If we are making big drug busts, it will help the community and make the program sustainable.”