Amid a week when each new day seems to bring a new homicide in Huntington, Friday will bring a new boost in resources among city, state and federal law enforcement officers.
Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday ordered the West Virginia National Guard to provide more resources to its counter-narcotics program in Huntington to support a more broad patrol of the city and free up more resources among law enforcement agencies in Huntington.
Justice ordered the Guard actions hours after the Huntington Police Department launched its 19th homicide investigation of 2017.
Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, West Virginia’s adjutant general and head of the state’s National Guard, wouldn’t go as far as to say the support is a “boots on the ground” effort or a deployment of Guardsmen.
Instead, it’s a bump in manpower for the Guard’s counter-narcotics support program, which has been present in the city and helping police there for 20 years, Hoyer said.
“The focus of what the governor wants the Guard to do is what we have done for a number of years, and we are pretty good at — providing that technical support so the law enforcement officers can get out and spend their time doing the law enforcement work that they need to do in greater numbers,” Hoyer said.
The nature of the governor’s order will provide additional National Guard members in Huntington beginning Friday, and their work will include analytical support and some aviation assets, to allow Huntington police officers to patrol West Virginia’s second-largest city from the sky, Hoyer said.
Huntington Mayor Steve Williams was hesitant to provide any additional details regarding other types of tactics law enforcement and city, state and federal officials will take in response to the spike in criminal activity.
Williams applauded the teamwork among Huntington police, Marshall University police, the Cabell County Sheriff’s Office, the West Virginia State Police and federal law enforcement officers.
“We’re all aggravated, ticked off and frustrated with what’s happening here,” Williams said. “We’re all committed to make sure we shut it down.”
The homicide rate in Huntington for 2017 is the highest it’s been in three decades. This week alone, there have been five shootings in which six people were shot. Three people died as a result of the wounds they suffered in the shootings.
Prior to Justice’s announcement Thursday, Huntington police Capt. Hank Dial said there was a strong probability that at least two of this week’s shootings are related.
As of Wednesday, police had made arrests in 13 of the homicide cases reported this year. On Thursday, Dial said arrest warrants had been issued for two people involved in a fatal shooting last month.
The sharp increase in homicides in Huntington has been attributed to illegal drug activity and staffing issues with the Huntington Police Department.
The Herald-Dispatch reported Thursday that the department has the capability to field 103 officers, but there are only 95 employed at the department. Six officers are unavailable now because of injuries or military leave, leaving 89 officers available for duty.
More than 5,000 grams of heroin have been seized in the city this year, nearly doubling the 2,600 grams of heroin seized last year, Williams said.
In August, Cabell County, where Huntington is located, surpassed its overdose rate for 2016, according to the Herald-Dispatch.
On Thursday, Williams re-emphasized the city’s four components to stifle drug activity: prevention, intervention, treatment and law enforcement.
While the city has strong prevention, treatment and intervention programs in place, it has to keep its attention on law enforcement for the time being in the wake of the recent violent crimes, Williams said.
“For the bad guys, it’s their drugs that are killing people, and they are killing each other,” Williams said. “What we intend to do with every resource taxpayers in the city of Huntington pay for is to rain unmitigated hell down on these people. If they don’t leave on their own, they will leave here by us sending them to prison for a long time.”