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Deputies in Harford County Sheriff's Narcotics Unit burned by opioid epidemic

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Posted at 9:01 AM, Oct 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-04 23:40:11-04

On the streets the men and women on the front lines of the opioid epidemic are seeing something different.

The drugs are stronger now than ever, making their work more dangerous, as it continues to kill some of the people they're trying to help.

To battle the opioid epidemic Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler created the Narcotics Unit three years ago, amid a rapid rise in overdoses.

His team of seven led by Detective Sergeant Bob Royster, feel for the victims they deal with on a daily basis.

"Trying to help out the families, knowing that I have kids the same age that can fall into the exact same trap, you know heroin knows no demographics, all ages," he said.

The work, is like a tidal wave, drowning the small team.

"We're just so burnt you know? Three years of doing this and it's the same thing pretty much every day... It never ends. When it comes up to our day on call we dread it. You know it puts stress on home, on you, you don't sleep right, it really wears on you," Royster said sounding defeated.

We spent two days with him and saw him work tragedy after tragedy. The second night, a Friday, we rode with him to a home where a 26-year-old man was found dead by his mother and sister.

We arrived after two Sheriff's deputies, a couple neighbors popped their heads outside to see what was going on.

We stayed outside, waiting for the sad news. Seeing a grieving sister walking behind the clear glass storm door from time to time.

Sgt. Royster described what they went through, "[mom] knocked on the door, yelled got no answer. So the sister went down with a hammer, broke the doorknob off so they could make entry and found him laying on his back on his bed, still has a cigarette in his hand... We found a shoestring that he was using as a tourniquet and there's a used needle down there so he obviously injected, she says he would typically inject between the fingers."

He said the mother tried everything, putting her son in a program, including taking withdrawal medication, and getting drug tested three times a month. He didn't have a phone or a car, making Sgt. Royster believe the drugs were dropped off at the home.

He said it's a cycle, no matter what a family tries to do, addicts either decide to quit, or they die.

"You can see it in their eyes you know they want to quit but the heroin, the addiction has such a pull that they just can't," Sgt. Royster said.

Now their addiction is making his job more dangerous.

"We didn't really see it, it really didn't much come into the game until about 6-8 months ago and then it started popping up in some of the fatal overdoses we're getting back in autopsies, found in the blood," he said.

Drugs cut with synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil cause an overdose in a breathe or by touching your skin, making detectives gear up.

"Pretty much all the time now, you can't take for granted you know it's heroin or you know it's fentanyl, we have to take precautions all the time now," Sgt. Royster said. We saw him and the deputies at the scene all don purple gloves, and a couple held breathing masks.

The added danger frustrating him as his team comes across the same dealers.

"It makes me angry people care so little about life, that they're willing to put this stuff out knowing it's killing people, it's just dis... just for a dollar really? I mean it's ridiculous," Sgt. Royster said.

Yet it doesn't stop him from coming in each day to help others, "very rewarding when you're able to help a family and bring some closure to some parents which I think is a great thing. That's what I enjoy and putting a person in jail who deserves to be in jail."

He hopes time will change the tide of the epidemic and education will stop kids from becoming addicts, perpetuating the cycle.