BY KEN LITTLE
An ongoing wave of thefts and burglaries continues to plague Greene County residents.
The numbers speak for themselves, and top local law enforcement officials say the high numbers point to the epidemic of prescription drug abuse sweeping the county.
Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 14, the Greene County Sheriff's Department received reports of 312 burglaries and 492 thefts -- an average of nearly three property crimes per day.
Sheriff Steve Burns said that some elements stand out in current theft and burglary cases that distinguish them from property crimes of years past.
Many suspects, Burns said, are now close family members of the victims -- sons, daughters, grandsons or granddaughters.
"That's changed in the last year or two, as compared to in the past, when so many of these reports of burglaries and thefts-- you didn't know who it was," he said.
The majority of the current property-crime reports "are directly or indirectly related to the abuse and misuse of prescription drugs," Burns said.
He added that, in many cases, if a child or grandchild is involved and hooked on painkillers and other pills, what crime victims want is "help, not prosecution."
The law enforcement response to these crimes takes many forms, Burns said.
He is a past president of the Tennessee Sheriffs' Association, which is active in Nashville lobbying for tougher laws "that put restrictions on medications these people are getting."
A former narcotics detective himself, Burns said that, from a law enforcement standpoint, undercover investigations by the Third Judicial District Drug Task Force make identifying and charging those who illegally sell prescription drugs a priority.
He said a three-deputy patrol unit in the Sheriff's Department focuses on picking up individuals sought on warrants, many of whom are participating in drug-related activity.
The detail includes a police dog K-9 unit trained in detecting drugs.
The unit's work frequently uncovers other illegal activities, Burns said.
"That often leads to additional arrests," he said.
Road patrol officers are out every day responding to calls, "and we're asking them to pay special attention to the ones we arrest," and possibly tie them to other crimes, Burns said.
As drug-use trends change, law enforcement must respond, the sheriff stated.
"My experience working narcotics (is), every few years we have to be aware of [the changing trends] and adjust to those changes," Burns said.
The Greeneville Police Department is also responding to a steady stream of burglary and theft reports, but city police have one advantage that sheriff's deputies do not, police Chief Terry Cannon said.
"With us here in town, the neighbors are so close. We're not spread out so bad," Cannon said.
The root cause of many burglaries and thefts, he said, is the same as for the ones being investigated in the county.
"Those pills are killing us!" Cannon said.
He added that many of those arrested for illegal possession or sale of narcotic painkillers and other pills, along with thefts committed to gain money to purchase them, are adults well beyond their 20s.
Chief Cannon said many people did not anticipate that the pill abuse epidemic would hit as hard as it has in Greene County.
"It's just tough. If you had ever thought we would have got to a day and age it would be pills (causing the crimes), I wouldn't have believed you," Cannon said.
But neighbors generally look out for neighbors in Greeneville, he said.
"The best people we have [for preventing burglaries and thefts]," he emphasized, "are good nosey neighbors, because they'll watch, and they'll see, and they'll call," he said.