SOUTHINGTON – Police will use the proceeds of a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to fund access to technology that may make it easier to track drug dealers.
The Town Council approved $18,000 Monday for the Police Department to contract with Cellebrite Premium cellphone forensics, a company that can unlock cell phones. The technology can help police track drug dealers in the case of a fatal overdose.
Southington joined other towns and cities in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for their opioid marketing. Municipal leaders and others have argued the companies’ marketing results in the overprescription of addictive painkillers, leading to demand for such medications as well as illegal drugs. One of those cases was settled, resulting in $93,000 for Southington’s efforts to combat opioid addiction.
Town Manager Mark Sciota said another case is pending and may result in more money for Southington. Unsure of how much will ultimately be awarded to the town, he’s looking to spend $18,000 to $20,000 per year to stretch out the funds.
“The $93,000 is what we have now. I want to see what’s coming in,” Sciota said.
Evidence from cell phones
Police said they already unlock cell phones, but the process can be lengthy or require the cooperation of another department. While there is currently access to this technology through the State Police or neighboring departments, police said there can be a delay for such work.
“That (State Police) process right now takes anywhere from six to eight months. That information is now stale,” said James Armack, a police sergeant and detective.
Using other towns’ tech means asking for a favor, so there’s a limit to how often Southington officers can do this, Armack said. Right now cases involving murder, sexual assault or other violent crimes take precedence over overdose deaths.
With its own access to cell phone unlock technology, Armack said the department can more frequently catch those who are providing deadly drugs.
He relayed a case from 2017 to Town Council members where a 31 year-old woman died from an overdose. Unlocking the woman’s cell phone allowed police to catch the dealer through call and text logs. The dealer was sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison, followed by six years of supervised release.
“They definitely are filled with information,” Armack said.
The technology approved Monday saves data from those phones in such a way that it can be used in court.
Armack said police only undertake an investigation following a fatal overdose if the family agrees.
“I would never force an investigation upon a family who just lost a loved one,” he said.
The town has sustained dozens of fatal overdoses in the last few years. Police said that in 2020, there were 11 overdose deaths. The next year saw eight deaths, in 2022 a total of 14 deaths were recorded, and so far there have been eight deaths this year.
There have been hundreds more non-fatal overdoses during those years, according to police, along with the administration of Narcan 205 times to prevent an overdose death. The vast majority of overdoses in town involve fentanyl, according to Armack.
Providing access to and training with Narcan is on the list of things the lawsuit proceeds will fund in future years.
“Anybody can come, anybody can get trained, anybody can leave with a kit of Narcan,” Megan Albanese, the town’s prevention coordinator, said of such training sessions.