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Back to Archives | Back to March 2005 Contents 

Enlisting Community Help in the Investigation of Methamphetamine Laboratories

By Todd Wuestewald, Chief of Police, and Gayla R. Adcock, Detective, Broken Arrow Police Department, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

Methamphetamine Lab
Photographs courtesy Broken Arrow Police Department

ethamphetamine is an insidious and dangerous drug that causes severe addictive behavior and physical and psychological damage to its victims. The use and manufacture of methamphetamine, or meth, has been growing exponentially in Oklahoma in the last several years, and the effects of the meth epidemic have been felt in Broken Arrow.

A problem-solving project called Operation Don't Meth Around, implemented by a narcotics officer in the department's street crimes unit with support from the department's leadership, focused on raising three groups' awareness of the meth problem:

  • Retailers who unknowingly sold the ingredients for manufacturing methamphetamine

  • Patrol officers who must detect signs of meth labs and investigate suspected labs

  • Residents and business owners

Methamphetamine, known to some as "poor man's cocaine," is produced in clandestine laboratories using common household chemicals and over-the-counter cold remedies. Fewer than 10 percent of those arrested for manufacturing meth are trained chemists. Meth laboratory operators, or cooks, usually have little or no chemistry training and simply learned the formula from other meth cooks or found instructions on Internet Web sites.

Meth Labs Involve Many Risks
Many of the chemicals found in these labs are corrosive or flammable or both. The vapors that are emitted from the chemical reactions attack mucous membranes, skin, eyes, and the respiratory tract. Some chemicals will react with water or other chemicals and cause a fire or explosion.

What became apparent to the Broken Arrow Police Department was the large number of fires caused by methamphetamine laboratories. When attempts were made to geographically profile the laboratories, police found that some of these fires were in rural areas and others were within a few feet of neighboring homes and schools. Police discovered early in the operation that there was no specific area of focus for the perpetrators. Police investigated meth labs in neighborhoods both lower-class and upper-class neighborhoods, as well as in local motels, hotels, storage buildings, outbuildings, automobiles, and rural areas. In other words, meth labs were a problem throughout the city.

In addition to the risk of explosive gases, chemical contamination from the hazardous waste of these labs posed a serious threat to the environment and to the health of unsuspecting citizens in the community. Each pound of meth manufactured in a clandestine lab generates several more pounds of toxic waste. Clandestine lab
operators routinely dump such waste into local streams, rivers and sewage systems in order to dispose of the evidence of their illegal operation.

Danger to Children
Along with increasing the chance of fire, meth labs threaten the safety of children in other ways. Children who are found in these homes where meth labs are housed run the risk of toxicological, neurological, respiratory, dermatological, and other adverse affects of exposure to chemicals and stimulants. Of the children Broken Arrow police have removed from houses where meth labs had been in operation, 100 percent tested positive for methamphetamine.

Children living with meth labs are also at high risk of neglect or abuse. During the seizure of one lab, police discovered that the suspects were manufacturing meth on the same table where two young children were eating.

To address the danger to children, Broken Arrow implemented a set of procedures designed to do the following:

  • Ensure the immediate safety and security of children found when law enforcement seizes in-home methamphetamine laboratories, by obtaining for children medical assessment and treatment and placement in crisis intervention support

  • Enhance charges against offending parents and guardians with child endangerment charges

  • Incarcerate offending parents when necessary, and place children in stable families

  • Obtain treatment for offending parents and guardians who seek reunification with their children in a stable home environment

  • Break the generational cycle of drug use by intervening on behalf of children in drug-affected families

  • Increase community awareness of the danger associated with meth production to reduce community exposures to such dangers

Broken Arrow officers recognized that the chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine could be bought locally at grocery stores, hardware stores, convenience stores, veterinarian supply stores, and chemical supply stores. To attack this problem of clandestine meth labs, the best approach for Broken Arrow was to address it where the chemicals are bought (local stores), where the manufacturing process takes place (the community), and to break the cycle of learning through the method of being passed down to the next generation (the children). If successful, the city would lower the risk of chemical explosion and fire, rid neighborhoods of chemical pollution, and create a safe and healthy environment for children. Police believed that decreasing the accessibility of methamphetamine could also lead to a decline in other crimes.

Educating the Supply Source
Police officers made contact with business managers and owners in Broken Arrow and made them aware of the ingredients used to manufacture methamphetamine. Most of the people police talked to said that they were unaware of what was actually used to manufacture the drug and were surprised to learn of how accessible the ingredients are. Business owners acknowledged an increase in the sale-and the theft-of certain items used in meth manufacture, such as paint thinners, cold medication, matches, and lithium batteries.

Business owners were not the only ones who were unaware of the meth lab problem and the details of its manufacture. Police officers and other department employee had received little training in regard to these labs. Officers asked questions about the ingredients, the hazards posed by meth labs, and how to recognize a lab if they came across one during a traffic stop or on a call. By training the patrol officers to recognize telltale signs of meth labs, the department strengthened its enforcement efforts.

Empowered with the knowledge that education for the community and officers was needed the police department responded in the following ways:

  • Developing an informational brochure for the community

  • Obtaining and disseminated color posters with pictures of ingredients and items used to manufacture methamphetamine so that officers and retailers could easily identify them

  • Holding community seminars

  • Conducting in-service training for officers and dispatchers

  • Developing a departmental policy and procedures on clandestine meth labs

  • Working with local business to place hidden cameras where they were needed

  • Providing a telephone crime-line on which callers could report suspicious activity anonymously

  • Placing an informational center about clandestine laboratories on the police department's Web site

Acting on information provided by community members, Broken Arrow police identified a number of suspects involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine and made several arrests for drug-related crimes. Just a few weeks after disseminating information on meth labs, the police department received a call from a local business. The caller stated that two men came into the store and purchased items used to make meth; he had seen the same two men in the store buying the same products on an earlier visit. That tip led to an investigation that resulted in the dismantling of one of the largest meth labs in Broken Arrow and the arrests of several suspects involved in the lab. Acting on the tip, police identified suspects, discovered suspect vehicles, found possible meth lab locations, and identified the type of labs in operation.

From interviews of meth offenders, police found that community support for the police program has made it more difficult for perpetrators to obtain the ingredients needed to manufacture meth. For example, local businesses that sell pseudoephedrine have placed the products either behind the pharmacy area and made them available for sale only upon request, or they displayed fewer boxes on the shelf, thereby reducing the number that could be bought or stolen at one time. They have also gone as far as asking to see identification of suspicious purchasers before the sale is permitted. Stores have placed hidden cameras on aisles where the commonly used utensils and precursors needed by meth labs are displayed. In these ways and others, retailers have helped police identify suspects and find and dismantle clandestine methamphetamine laboratories.

Just last month, a retailer informed police that a suspicious person had just bought a surprising number of matches from a convenience store. The tip led investigators to the largest clandestine methamphetamine laboratory police have ever found in Broken Arrow.

Educating the Officers
Knowing that members of the public would ask officers questions about meth and its dangers, the police department conducted in-service training on clandestine meth labs for all officers. This became a valuable element of the project; once officers were trained they began to notice signs of a clandestine lab. One sign they began noticing in particular was the bluing of the metal valve on propane tank, an indicator of anhydrous ammonia.

But the police department didn't stop training at the officer level; the department educated the dispatchers as well. It created an informational booklet designed to help dispatchers understand callers who are reporting a possible meth lab. For example, a call came in to the police department about the sale of a substantial amount of psudoephedrine pills at a local business. The dispatcher was able to recognize that the call was in reference to ingredients being purchased for a possible meth lab. The dispatcher began to ask the caller question about the persons who purchased the items and was able to get valuable information about the suspects and the vehicle they were driving. That information led officers to the right suspects, who they arrested for endeavoring to manufacture methamphetamine.

Knowing the type of laboratory in operation is important to police for investigative and safety reasons. For example, the purchase of numerous matchbooks could indicate that the buyers are involved with a lab that is using red phosphorous as the primary type of "cook," as it is known, and the sale of an unusual number of lithium batteries could indicate the operation of a methamphetamine laboratory that is using anhydrous ammonia. This distinction could be very important to the investigating officers. Knowing what chemicals to expect is always a safety issue among officers. Lithium metal, for instance, reacts violently to water. What if a fire broke out during a raid? Emergency responders wouldn't want to attempt to extinguish the fire with water.

Suspect information gathered by businesses and provided to police also helps ensure officer safety. Once a possible suspect is identified, police can conduct a records check to determine whether a suspect has a violent history or is even a violent offender from a previous arrest. Knowing the identity of the suspects helps the officers prepare themselves and their case before making contact with the suspects.

Operation Don't Meth Around has resulted in methamphetamine seizures and the disruption of the distribution chain of this narcotic in and around Broken Arrow. The Broken Arrow Police Department expects to see a continued decrease in the seizures of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories and an increase to the community's safety and health by ensuring that contaminated residences used as meth labs are dismantled and the precursor chemicals are increasingly more difficult to obtain. ■



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 3, March 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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