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Berkshire DA Discusses Fentanyl Fears, Rising Overdose, Domestic Violence Rates

A woman in a blue suit stands at a microphone-covered podium in a booklined room
Josh Landes
Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington says an increased amount of fentanyl-laced heroin has hit area streets. The Democrat spoke with WAMC Thursday about the connection between the batch and rising overdoses in the region, as well as increasing domestic violence rates and the coming arraignment of a Great Barrington police officer for drunk driving in April.

Well, I received an alert from our Berkshire law enforcement task force that they were seeing increases in fentanyl in the results that they were getting from the crime lab of drugs that were seized in Berkshire County. They actually requested that I put this alert out because of their concern for people in our community. I can say additionally, between March 19th, and May 10th, we've seen at least 10 overdose deaths in Berkshire County. And we're going to be pulling together more data and comparing that to other time periods but it does sound and it does feel like a high rate of overdose deaths that we're seeing here in the community. And this is consistent with information and warnings that I have been receiving for at least six months now from the department of justice and the DEA that we can expect to see more fentanyl in our community here in Berkshire County.

So what advice are you giving folks in the Berkshires about heroin use during this time?

The advice that we are giving to individuals who are using heroin is, first of all you to never use alone. There is a website that people can log on to while they are consuming drugs that will call 911 in the event of an overdose. We really value the lives of every person in our community in the Berkshire District Attorney's Office, and we want people to be safe, and we want people to live another day so that, you know, we can, you know, continue to try to find new ways of supporting individuals so that they can be healthy in our community. So we are encouraging people to take advantage of Never Use Alone. We're encouraging people to continue to use the resources that are available, we put out a resource guide, specifically so that we can make sure that people understand know what kind of services are still available people, you know, there are organizations that are still operating and providing medical care to people. And we want to make sure that that people know that, and take advantage of that because we want people to be healthy. And we, you know, we encourage people to communicate with one another about what's in the drug supply, so that you're sharing information we think can help keep people safe.

What are the trends in drug trafficking that your office has observed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

In terms of the trends in drug trafficking that are being observed now, it's not something that we can speak to at this time. I will say that, you know, law enforcement continues to be vigilant, and monitoring the situation, and acting in emergency situations, but it's just too soon for us to try to predict what's going on in terms of trends of drug activity. But we, you know, we're very concerned with the stress that this pandemic is putting on everybody in our community. And we're very concerned with how that is going to impact people who are using drugs, people that are in recovery, people that are living on the margins of our community. So, you know, we're working to collaborate with law enforcement and across the community to respond to these really challenging times for the people in our community that are the most vulnerable.

You've made domestic violence and sexual assault a key part of your platform as a leader in Berkshire County. I've spoken with the Pittsfield police department who said they've seen an uptick in domestic violence calls during the pandemic. Is that something your office is paying attention to? And is that a confirmation that you can corroborate, that that is indeed rising in the county.

We are starting to see an uptick in very concerning domestic violence incidents across Berkshire County. We continue to work very collaboratively with local law enforcement in terms of sharing information, the pieces of information that we need from the police to present to the courts so that we can argue that perpetrators of domestic violence who we feel present an unjustified risk to victims and to our community, so that we can make arguments to the court so that those people can be held pretrial. Our Domestic Sexual Violence Task Force, that is a community wide approach to domestic and sexual violence, continues to meet And to work and to get really get the message out about resources that are available to people. The big project that we're working on now is a domestic violence high risk team. We have implemented some of those pieces right now because of the difficult situation that we're in. But we're planning on rolling that out very formally in the very near future. And the high risk team is an opportunity for people, you know, across the criminal justice system and the community to communicate about cases that we are very concerned about into potentially offer additional services to those folks and to keep an eye on those folks. So like we've had incidences where we have alerted law enforcement to specific concerns about a particular situation and law enforcement will drive by the house, will sit outside the house, and we've heard from victims that they have seen that, and they notice, and it makes them feel much safer.

Conversations are starting in the state about what reopening would look like for Massachusetts. From your vantage point from the realm of criminal justice and law enforcement, what are those conversations like? Is there a chance that in person trials will be resuming at any point in the near future, any sort of regular function from your office?

Well, we have heard some inconsistent information about what we can expect from the courts and when we can expect it. And it's a situation that appears to be in flux in terms of planning. The trial courts have tended to follow the suit of the governor and the governor's orders. So it's my impression that the trial court system is  kind of looking for signals from the governor’s office in terms of when it's going to be appropriate to reopen the courthouses and to switch from virtual hearings to in person hearings, and then later, you know, to evidentiary matters like jury trials and grand juries. So we're still right now, waiting for some direction on that. So my biggest concern right now are children that are in homes that are not safe, that are being neglected. Some that might be in the system, and some that are not. I mean, particularly with these kids not going to school and not interacting with people in the communities that they normally would. So it's my hope that we prioritize reopening in terms of services and monitoring that would help us support and identify kids that are at risk. I think that that really needs to be at the top of the agenda in terms of talking about what's essential, and in what functions we're going to take on first. And the other thing that I'm very concerned about are individuals that have committed serious crimes, are currently being held pretrial, and are constitutionally entitled to a guilt trial. And I'm an advocate for the courts coming up with new and creative ways to make sure that those matters can be heard quickly and in line with individuals’ constitutional rights, and in a way that allows us to protect public safety and protect the community from individuals who really are not safe out on our streets.

Have you experienced any COVID specific crime? Over the last couple months? I've spoken with leaders like Maura Healey, the state attorney general, who's talked about scams related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Have you encountered anything like that in Berkshire County?

In terms of COVID specific type fraud or scam, I have not heard of an uptick or reports from law enforcement about these kinds of scams and fraud. And those kinds of crimes are difficult to address and monitor on a local level because they tend to originate from other places. But you know, it's just that is not something that I have heard of.

It's been reported that an off-duty police officer in Great Barrington was arrested for an OUI in April. I'm interested in, is your office monitoring that situation with the Great Barrington police department?

In terms of charges against Great Barrington Police Department for operating under the influence that, the courts have scheduled the arraignment, and my office will be requesting that a special prosecutor prosecute that case because of our relationship with a Great Barrington Police Department and the officer in question. We obviously have a professional relationship there. So it's just appropriate that a prosecutor from another office prosecute that matter.

Looking forward as DA of Berkshire County, what do you think the next conversation about law enforcement in the COVID-19 era is going to be as we move towards conversations about reopening? Is there anything on your horizon that you're sort of seeing as you know, is it going to spike when things begin to reopen, is it going to suddenly drop off the map, but what are you forecasting?

Well, I think our next conversation about law enforcement in the age of COVID-19, is going to center around our response to people that are struggling with mental illness and with substance use disorder. With the stress that is being placed on people in our community and with a certain amount of, unraveling of systems of care. I think that we're going to see a lot of pressure on people that is going to result in maybe people struggling with their sobriety, people struggling with their substance use people struggling with mental health challenges. So we are working with a Berkshire Opioid Prevention Collaborative, in particular and other organizations across the community to have a community wide approach to these challenges, so that we can support people and keep our communities safe, and have you know, really a problem solving approach to these challenges.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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