Drugs remain ever-changing problem for East Hillside

Duluth East Hillside residents say that their area has a drug problem. Police agree. “It is hard to say if the drug situation in the Hillside is getting better or not,” Sergeant Andy Mickus, a Duluth police officer said. “It is such a transient area with new college people moving in every year that it is always changing.”

Alane Davis, a Ski Hut employee, works in the area and has noticed drug activity in the East Hillside.

“Going to and from work I have seen drug drop offs or pickups near fourth street,” Davis said. View Larger Map

Davis said that she has seen cars pull up to a person standing on the sidewalk. Cash and zip-lock baggies are exchanged and the person in the vehicle drives off.

Last summer, Dan Swartz a resident living on the corner of East Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street saw activity daily.

“The alley behind my house would be full of cars in a line,” Swartz said. “The people in the cars would not even have to get out to pick up drugs. The tenants of the house cut holes in the window screens to pass the drugs directly to the cars.”

“I also knew something was up when once a month a tricked-out Cadillac Escalade would pull into that alley,” Swartz said. “People in our neighborhood don’t drive $70,000 dollar vehicles.”

Tracy Montaye, Swartz’s next-door neighbor agrees that drugs on the East Hillside are a huge problem.

“After living here for 12 years, you just get used to seeing a lot of things,” Montaye said.

Street sign of E 5th St and W 5th Ave E

The incidents Montaye mentions occurred close to his home.

“There was a guy that lived in the apartments down on Fifth Street,” Montaye said. “He seemed like a nice guy to your face, but everyone could tell he was up to something. After a few months the cops caught on and six S.W.A.T. members blocked the nearby streets off and they got him.”

The most drug activity Montaye has seen was from the house right across the street.

“Six years ago a drug dealer lived across the street from me,” Montaye said. “A meth lab or something gone wrong burned the place down.”

The Duluth Police Department did not remember the incident specifically.

“The problem with going after the little people is they get out of jail and they are back on the streets again in no time,” Montaye said.

There have been 39 drug-related charges since January 1 in Duluth’s East Hillside, according to crimemapping.com. The site is run by the Omega Group, which compiles crime data using public records.

The site allows users to view crimes by type, address, time, and which agency reported the incident.

That is one of the most frustrating issues for the Lake Superior Drug and Gang Task Force. Sergeant Mickus is one of nine members on the task force. “We get a good background in the office and we verify it with our informants,” Mickus said “After that we use surveillance by putting people out onto the street. We really go after the big people by catching the small people and working our way up.”

Mickus mentioned how they still do go after small cases because they have a huge impact on neighborhoods. Having a dealer down the street locked up provides a lot of comfort to nearby residents.

“The war on drugs is kind of like the weather,” Mickus said. “It changes.”

Mickus said that sometimes the problem is cocaine and other times it is meth. As soon as they slow one type of drug operation down, a new one pops up and it is a never ending cycle.

“The biggest problem in the East Hillside and around Duluth right now: pharmaceuticals and synthetics,” Mickus said.

The pharmaceuticals Mickus is talking about are prescription opiates (painkillers) like Vicodin and Oxycontin.  According to the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs, synthetics are substances that are produced completely by chemical reactions in a laboratory and are extremely dangerous.

Swartz thinks the police department is not doing enough.

“The Duluth Police Department needs to not be making budget cuts and needs to get more people on the task force,” Swartz said. “Nine people is not enough.”

Another solution Swartz has is for the citizens of the East Hillside to get involved.

“With smartphones and the technology we have today, it is not hard to give the cops tips,” Swartz said. “Take a picture or video of activity or of license plates.”

Swartz realizes that people do not want to make the drug dealers mad, but there is a lot the community can do to help the police department without being in danger.

“Drugs are a huge problem in my neighborhood, but I still like the area enough to live here,” Montaye said.

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