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Why 17 is my measure of success

That's how many officers are dedicated to full-time narcotics interdiction on the tangled highways of the part of Southern California where I work

Staff officers, agency leaders, and even politicians are fond of expressing success in terms of numbers. They all use mathematical terms to measure successes and failures — typically articulated in percentages — even though the numbers by themselves don’t usually tell the whole story.

They’ll proclaim that the homicide rate for the current year is “only” 2 percent higher than the previous year. Imagine how the families of those victims who comprise this 2 percent feel when reading that statement in the newspaper!

Successes and failures — when described only using numbers — often don’t do the results any justice. But sometimes, those numbers are truly powerful, all by themselves.

A Little Goes a Long Way
My number for success is 17 — no percentage attached. It’s a simple number. It’s clean. It’s even a prime number. For me, the number 17 represents a very powerful example of what small-unit tactics and a unified mission can accomplish. Seventeen is the number of full-time officers dedicated to highway narcotics interdiction in the four geographically largest and most heavily populated counties in Southern California.

That’s not a typo. Seventeen officers from three different law enforcement agencies (federal and local) are dedicated to full-time narcotics interdiction on the highways. The stunner is the result of their efforts, which we’ll visit in a moment. First I want to put the number 17 into perspective.

This area of the United States boasts the five busiest interstates (I-5, I-8, I-15, I-10, and I-40) in terms of overall traffic flow, and are therefore also arguably the five most heavily used smuggling corridors.

I-5 starts at the U.S./Mexico International Border, with the I-15 branching off just twelve miles north of the border; both of these freeways run all the way to Canada. The I-8 freeway, which starts in the Pacific Beach neighborhood of San Diego, crosses I-15 just fifteen miles north of the border, continuing eastbound toward I-10, but running only a mere 1.4 miles north of the border throughout a large portion of eastern San Diego County — and less than a half-mile north of the border in parts of Arizona.

To compound the issue, I-5 and I-15 both cross I-10, and the I-40 freeway springs from I-15 further north in Barstow, California. Narcotics are smuggled into the U.S. and, via these transportation corridors, find their way north, east and west to the major metropolitan distribution hubs in Ontario, Los Angeles, Phoenix, El Paso, Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities.

The five counties where these freeways converge and/or terminate — San Diego, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Los Angeles — are also home to approximately 20 million residents.

17 x 2013 = $45,000,000
Back to my 17. These 17 officers are highly motivated, highly trained, and highly regarded for their expertise in combining the usual police patrolling tactics with an analysis of driving behavior and “tells” exhibited by those actually moving the product.

This analysis of driving behavior — and associated changes in that behavior with the introduction of a stimulus into these drivers’ proximate vicinities, such as a marked patrol vehicle — is redefining what it means to combat the flow of dangerous drugs into our communities.

Fun fact: There have been many occasions where after having pulled over a vehicle suspected of smuggling and discovering significant amounts of product, the suspect drivers are also in possession of various moving violation citations, sometimes with the ink not having fully dried. In one case, the suspect vehicle was found to be smuggling over 20 kilos of methamphetamine in various compartments.

Does this mean that the traffic cop who wrote the ticket wasn’t a good cop? No. It just means that they weren’t looking for indicators that these highly specialized interdiction officers are trained to see. We are developing the training and science necessary to illustrate to other officers and agencies just what to cue in on.

Here’s another number: $45,000,000.

That’s the approximate street value of the amount of seized narcotics these 17 officers took off of the street in 2013 alone.

For anyone who puts a great deal of importance on numbers, the number 17 — at least in this case — is one that carries a very high value for me.

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