By J. STEVEN DILLON and EILEEN MCCLORY
Jeff Waldron pays closer attention these days to the goings-on in and around his northside Findlay neighborhood.
So do many of his neighbors.
Waldron admits he was one of the people who never believed that Ohio’s opioid problems would hit so close to home.
But just around the corner from his house, two suspected drug overdose deaths occurred within days of each other in early November.
“I feel sad. This shouldn’t have happened,” said a neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s still someone’s son, someone’s brother. As much as it wrecked our neighborhood, it’s still sad.”
Waldron and many others in the older, well-kept residential area just south of the city’s recreation center remain on high alert. Their 10-year-old Block Watch group is now more active and aggressive than ever.
“We keep an eye out on each other and what’s happening around us,” another neighborhood resident said during a recent meeting with Courier reporters. “We’ve got each others’ backs.”
Their efforts appear to be warranted after a four-day period in early November when one man appeared to overdose at a home in the neighborhood and later died at the hospital, and another man apparently overdosed and died at the same residence.
Some neighbors have suspected there was drug activity at the home for many months and have reported it to police. Suspicions were aroused by more traffic going to and around the house and more strangers in the neighborhood.
Some residents have witnessed apparent drug deals, and one person found a discarded, used syringe in a yard.
Waldron described hearing a squeaky bicycle going down the street so often that he learned to recognize it during the night.
To Waldron and others in the neighborhood, the goal is to protect their homes and families. With Bigelow Hill School nearby, there are many young children in the area.
“When you look out your window and you see someone you don’t know, hand someone on a bike a small plastic bag of something, it changes your perspective,” Waldron said.
Neighbors said they don’t allow their children to play near the suspected drug house anymore and have warned their kids away from the location.
Like all neighborhoods, Waldron’s has problems. Thefts and vandalism led to residents there forming a Block Watch group 10 years ago.
The neighborhood also was the alleged location of an “escort service,” although that problem has long since moved on, neighbors said.
Through Block Watch, and neighbors joining together, most of the smaller problems have been reduced, and neighbors enjoyed the benefit of meeting each other and more importantly, watching out for each other. When someone leaves town for vacation, neighbors watch the front and rear of the house.
But the opioid drug problem has changed the landscape throughout Findlay. Block watches, while popular, are one piece of the puzzle that police are putting together.
Acting Police Capt. Ryan Doe and Sgt. Brian Dill said no part of Findlay, or any town, is immune from the drug problem.
Dill said there are at least five drug houses in Findlay where police suspect drug activity is regularly occurring.
“We have homes, too, where the neighborhoods don’t complain, but we know it’s a drug house,” Dill said.
Doe said there are little differences between drug trafficking now and 10 or 20 years ago, but he said heroin peddlers are more common and the problem is everywhere.
“These people are users, but they’re intelligent, they’re criminals,” Doe said.
Meanwhile, the frustrations of many in Waldron’s neighborhood have grown since the two overdose deaths.
One neighbor, who didn’t want to be identified, said he has called police and even videotaped drug activity outside the home in question.
Yet, he said, police don’t always respond and the apparent trafficking has continued. He wonders if police are doing enough.
Doe said he understands the frustration. He said police value tips and information from Block Watch groups and the community.
“We still have constitutional requirements and local requirements established by the courts,” he said. “We take information and do our best to analyze the situation and be proactive.”
Dill said police actions in such cases isn’t always seen by tipsters. For example, a person may buy drugs at a particular location, and later be pulled over by police and arrested for drug possession. The person who called may not realize the arrest was made.
Or, police may not be able to go to a suspected drug house immediately after a call because of an accident or higher-priority event, but may be there later.
Doe said officers simply can’t knock on a door without first establishing the basis for probable cause to a judge.
Dill said officers, when notified of suspected drug activity, can work the area in marked or unmarked vehicles, in civilian clothes and in uniform.
Determining when there is the most activity at a drug house isn’t always easy, and can vary.
Cases can take months to investigate. If an officer makes a traffic stop after a person leaves a suspected drug house and finds a substance that tests positive for heroin, the drug will still need to be sent to a laboratory for analysis.
Because of the backlog from around Ohio, test results may not be available for four to six months.
The county’s jail situation also aggravates the challenges that police face.
A suspected heroin trafficker may be released on bond after his arrest because of a lack of jail beds, only to return to using or dealing drugs.
Judicial efforts that favor treatment instead of incarceration also can mean that drug dealers get second, third or even more chances. A user or dealer can be arrested one day and be back on the street the next.
Despite all the obstacles that seem to favor drug dealers, Doe said police take drug investigations seriously.
He reminds officers “that we live here, our families are here, so we do have an interest in trying to keep this stuff out of the community,” Doe said.
Waldron said he understands the limitations police have in rooting out such activity, even with help and tips from watch groups.
He said a lack of police manpower, laws that prohibit judges from sending low-level users or traffickers to state prisons, and the mindset that users should receive treatment instead of punishment make it difficult for police to address the problem as quickly as many citizens would like.
Waldron knows his neighborhood is not alone in the fight, and would encourage other neighborhoods to join together to work with police.
“If it’s happening in this neighborhood, it’s probably happening in yours, too,” he said. “Pretending it’s not won’t make the problem go away.”
Send an E-mail to Steve Dillon