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Smart Solutions To Security Problems

To catch pharmacy thieves, one drug company has funded a Web-based incident database; it also pays rewards for crime tips.

Capt. Richard Conklin of the Stamford, Connecticut, Police Department sees a booming trade in illegally acquired prescription drugs, whether they're stolen in drug store robberies, procured with fraudulent prescription slips, or purchased by addicts and dealers engaging in 'doctor shopping.'

While neither government nor industry tracks or can quantify prescription drug crime nationally, it is estimated to be the source of between a quarter and 30 percent of the country's drug problem, according to John Burke, commander of the Warren County, Ohio Drug Task Force and president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators.

Conklin cites a number of factors contributing to prescription drug theft. They range from tighter border security that may be making it harder to get other narcotics to the fact that users would much rather get their highs from safe drugs than from unregulated street drugs.

"It's a trend that's not abating, and it's a trend that I think we're going to see into the future," Conklin says.

A favorite of pharmaceutical thieves is OxyContin, a sustained-release oxycodone pill for acute chronic pain that drew widespread attention from both criminals and the media following its introduction in 1995.

The rate of pharmacy thefts, burglaries, and robberies spurred by OxyContin grew so high that some drug stores and chains considered removing the drug, manufactured by the Stamford-based Purdue Pharma, LP, from their inventories. It became apparent to the manufacturer that it had to find a way to help stores reduce the thefts.

First, the company tried to assess the causes. One problem was a lack of intelligence sharing, says J. Aaron Graham, who became vice president of corporate security at Purdue in 2000.

A former San Diego police officer and former agent with both the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Food and Drug Administration, Graham had worked undercover in places like Guadalajara, Mexico, with the DEA, and he had learned the value of sharing intelligence with counterparts in other field offices, agencies, and countries. He noticed, however, that intelligence sharing was not the norm among state and local jurisdictions struggling to track down nomadic pharmacy thieves who drifted from state to state and town to town, knocking over drug stores for controlled substances.

In an effort to jump-start interagency communications, Graham got Purdue to fund a Web-based open-source database of pharmaceutical crimes that any registered members of law enforcement, private security, or the pharmacy industry would be free to search. Launched in 2003, it was dubbed Rx Pattern Analysis Tracking Robberies & Other Losses (RxPATROL).

Conklin administers the site through his private consulting firm, Talon Inc. Any members of industry or law enforcement can enter a pharmaceutical crime into the RxPATROL system by going to the Web site and clicking the link titled 'Report an Incident.'

They fill out a simple six-section questionnaire consisting of entry fields, check-boxes, and pull-down menus. Graham and his colleagues designed the form with pharmaceutical crimes in mind, as an improvement on the typical all-purpose law enforcement report forms used for everything from noise complaints to strong-arm robberies.

The fields cover the location of the crime and relevant police report information, along with the type of crime committed, such as burglary, robbery, fraud, or employee theft.

The filer is also asked about the perpetrator's appearance, mode of operation, and methods of entry and exit, as well as whether he or she was armed, and if so, the type of weapon used. Further sections ask what types of over-the-counter products were stolen, and the names, dosages, and quantities of prescription drugs taken.

It is hoped that such reports will help reveal trends and perhaps give law enforcement useful leads, while also possibly helping pharmacies see what their vulnerabilities are and how they might avoid becoming victims of the types of crimes listed in the database.

RxPATROL is only a part of the effort, however. Purdue is also funding rewards for tips about drug thefts that lead to arrests; the rewards are provided through local Crime Stoppers chapters around the country. The rewards, combined in some cases with reports from the RxPATROL database, have been effective, generating tips that have led to about 18 arrests. In the remaining cases Conklin and local investigators used the database to connect dots and collar suspects.

For example, Sgt. Bill Stivers, head of the Louisville, Kentucky, Metro Police Department's Prescription Drug Squad, was already reporting his unit's cases to regional officials via an e-mail list when he started working with RxPATROL in 2004. Early the next year Stivers reported a spate of similar robberies. A Crime Stoppers reward was offered to anyone who had tips that could help in solving them, and the combined effort netted an arrest within days. The suspect is currently serving a 20-year prison term.

"We were able to get the information out quickly, while the crime was fresh in people's minds, and that's how we got the tip," Stivers says. "When it brings together law enforcement, the pharmacies, and the public, it's the most effective tool for fighting prescription-drug-related crime."

Conklin further conducts in-house database analysis to spot general trends and provide warnings to specific jurisdictions if, for example, a series of similar incidents has occurred in a specific region or has progressed along a highway corridor.

RxPATROL also uses its membership mailing list to circulate best practices among peers, such as recommendations that pharmacies install conspicuous CCTV cameras, which Conklin and his peers believe are a strong deterrent to pharmacy crime.

Motion detectors and backup power sources for alarm systems are also recommended. Graham and Conklin have seen multiple cases in which a perpetrator cuts power to a pharmacy at night, then falls back and waits for police to respond to the remote alarm. Often police contact a manager, who tells police that store staff will deal with the problem in the morning. Once police leave, the thieves make their move.

Anyone who wants to report an incident can also send photos or other images, including CCTV frames, to the RxPATROL site. Other features are continually being added. For example, the database operators plan to launch a feature with which registered users can plot selected incidents electronically on maps via the Web site.

Purdue funds RxPATROL to the tune of $300,000 a year, Graham says. Reward outreach is handled by a second consultant and administered locally through Crime Stoppers chapters.

Charlie Cichon, executive director of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, says the database and service are entirely unique.

"Prior to RxPATROL there wasn't anything available to law enforcement, local police, or any other group to help them share information about these types of crimes," Cichon says. (For more information: RxPATROL, Purdue Pharma, L.P., phone: 800/663-4159; e-mail:[email protected])