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Hazardous Duty: Grant Will Equip Southern Illinois Police For Fight Against Meth

By Andrea Marie Kampwerth, The Southern Illinoisan (Illinois)

MURPHYSBORO, Illinois -- A $596,000 anti-methamphetamine grant awarded to a partnership of Southern Illinois law enforcement agencies in 2003 is about to bear fruit.

Jackson County Sheriff Robert Burns, who chairs the advisory board over-seeing application of the grant, said the money is specifically earmarked to train 100 law enforcement officers in Southern Illinois to recognize and handle hazardous material related to meth production.

The labs, which are an all-too-frequent encounter for police in the area, contain highly corrisive and sometimes explosive substances, that can burn or poison a responding officer.

Williamson County Sheriff Tom Cundiff and Southern Illinois Enforcement Group Director Rob Fierstein round out the advisory board.

The grant originally called for training 150 officers, but the newly re-written grant, providing for 100 officers, will also provide equipment as well as training.

"It didn't make any sense to train such a large number of officers and not provide equipment," Burns said. Suiting up a lab dismantler can cost about $700 apiece, plus another $350 for an air quality monitor.

The first training class is tentatively scheduled for January.

Burns said the project partners for the grant include the main sponsors, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department and SIEG, plus the Illinois Emergency Management Association, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Children and Family Services and agencies from Williamson, Alexander, Franklin, Perry, Randolph, Pulaski and Union counties.

The area is roughly equivalent to Rep. Jerry Costello's congressional district. The congressman played a crucial role, Burns said, in obtaining the grant.

SIEG Special Projects Coordinator Tom McNamara is currently reviewing requests to enter the program. He will also direct training.

Part of the problem with meth is specifically the hazardous materials it leaves behind, Burns said. Because meth cooks rarely clean up after themselves, toxic and sometimes deadly meth waste is often left behind.

Children, pets, clean-up crews, property owners, deer hunters, mushroom hunters, hikers -- any one who might walk along a country road, wander in a rural area, or go into an abandoned or little used building can stumble across meth waste.

Cleaning hazardous material sites has not been in the job description of law enforcement officers until recent years. Fierstein explained that, because meth labs are crime sites, law enforcement officers are required to secure the site before any other agency comes on scene.

"The increase in meth problems in Southern Illinois is one that creates environmental hazards," Burns said. "Since it's here, it makes sense to train police officers to handle it."

Protocol requires at least two officers to clean up a meth site. Agencies sending officers for training need either to have two officers available within the department or an inter-governmental agreement with another agency to benefit from the offered training classes.

"In a full-blown lab, you can have a whole host of substances that could be volatile," Burns said. "We want our officers to be able to recognize (meth waste or an active lab) when they come across it, and how to handle it."

Burns said one of the immediate benefits will be freeing up the current lab dismantlers to do something other than clean up the sites. He added the caveat, though, that the training implies willingness to cooperate with other law enforcement agencies if necessary.

"(Meth) has been such a problem that the lab dismantlers have been reactive rather than pro-active," he said.

Fierstein said his agency has been asking local law enforcement agencies in Jackson, Williamson and Union counties, SIEG's operating region, to do more initial investigation themselves before calling SIEG.

He said that allows SIEG to maximize its own effectiveness -- a necessity, given budgetary and manpower constraints. This grant, he said, will help police departments do that.

"The plan," he said, "is to have more officers trained in lab clean-up so SIEG can do more law enforcement. This will help us focus on what we were originally established for. It will help free us up to concentrate on prevention and enforcement."

Fierstein added that, partly because of the clean-up necessary at meth lab sites, meth has become an over-riding concern for SIEG. However, SIEG is organized to combat all illegal drugs -- and those haven't gone away in the face of the meth epidemic.

A spokesperson for Costello, D - Belleville, said the congressman has tried to take a pro-active stance against the drug that is rampaging through Southern Illinois. He said this grant falls in line with the representative's goals.

"Of the drugs I've had to deal with in my career, this is just so much more of a problem," Burns said. "And it doesn't appear to be going away."

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