By Kantele Franko
COLUMBUS — The Ohio Highway Patrol said its increased efforts to crack down on drug trafficking and other crimes are paying off with more calls to its revamped hotline and greater use of its criminal intelligence unit, which follows up on tips and helps other law enforcement agencies.
The state launched an easier-to-dial hotline, #677, to replace the old (877) 7-PATROL about a year ago, encouraging travelers to call not only when they need help or see an impaired driver, but also to report tips on crimes such as drug activity and human trafficking.
The patrol says it’s getting more than 4,000 calls per month statewide, and while it doesn’t keep statistics on the topics of those calls, it has begun trying to track more specifically how many come through the hotline.
“It has exceeded every expectation, both in the number and the quality of tips that we’re getting,” said Col. John Born, the patrol’s superintendent.
He said the hotline has helped lead to international investigations, though he wouldn’t discuss specifics.
As more drug tips come in, the criminal intelligence unit has grown from two analyst positions to eight, and requests for its service more than doubled, said Capt. Brenda Collins, who oversees the round-the-clock Columbus hub that includes that unit, dispatchers and commanders.
She said publicity about the new hotline number and successful cases has helped spread the word about criminal patrol efforts and prompted more tips to local patrol posts or the hotline advertised on trooper vehicles and blue roadside signs.
Dozens more signs are being added this year at rest stops and along roads in areas considered to have high drug activity, patrol spokeswoman Lt. Anne Ralston said. Those signs are funded with money collected from previous cases.
“The public has learned that they can call, and we’ve had enough success stories and enough action from their calls in, that they know that we’re going to do something about it,” Collins said.
A tip about a suspicious tractor-trailer along Interstate 70 led to the seizure of cocaine that was worth an estimated $2.8 million near Springfield in June.
The following month, a trucker who had been trained to spot criminal activity and call the hotline saw a driver on Interstate 71 with a marijuana pipe and tipped off troopers, leading to a drug bust. In September, officers following up on two hotline tips about a suspected drug trafficker stopped a vehicle and found a handgun and $120,000 worth of cocaine hidden inside.
Overall, troopers made more than 7,600 stops for drug violations in 2012, up about 24 percent compared with 2011. They also seized more than twice as much marijuana and heroin as in 2011, and the amount of crack cocaine seized also increased. However, the amount of powder cocaine seized dropped more than 75 percent in 2012, according to patrol data.
The criminal intelligence unit’s work also has grown as more law enforcement agencies learn about the services it can offer, Collins said.
When a fire was set at a Toledo mosque last fall, the patrol unit helped Perrysburg Township police confirm the identity of a suspect from Indiana and connect with authorities in that state about his location, workplace and other information to track him down. He pleaded guilty but later sought to withdraw that plea, and the case is pending.
Police Detective Sgt. James Gross said it would have taken his agency hours to get the information the patrol got much more quickly.
Last month, Gross arranged for a trooper to make a presentation about the unit’s services for a group of northwest Ohio investigators.
“It’s a service that needs to be and can be utilized and beneficial to us and other law enforcement agencies,” he said.