New Kansas law enforcement initiative getting help from dogs to chase down fentanyl traffickers

KBI, KHP and attorney general combine forces to undermine fentanyl networks

By: - July 24, 2023 4:43 pm
A Kansas Bureau of Investigation handler and the K-9 unit's Jiren demonstrate Monday the process of detecting packaged fentanyl. Kansas officials announced a new unit dedicated to undermining the black market in the lethal drug. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

A Kansas Bureau of Investigation handler and the K-9 unit’s Jiren demonstrate Monday the process of detecting packaged fentanyl. Kansas officials announced a new unit dedicated to undermining the black market in the lethal drug. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Belgian Malinois known as Jiren raced from box to box Monday during a demonstration of the animal’s olfactory capabilities before hitting on one containing the scent of fentanyl — a lethal synthetic substance local, state and federal law enforcement agencies believe to be Kansas’ top trafficking priority.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas attorney general’s office, the White House’s High Density Drug Trafficking program in the Midwest, the U.S Department of Homeland Security’s investigations division and the Wichita Metro Crime Commission outlined through personal anecdote, statistical detail and emotional appeal why Kansas created a collaborative program to deal with influx of fentanyl.

KBI director Tony Mattivi said the Joint Fentanyl Impact Team, or JFIT, would bring together law enforcement personnel across Kansas to target trafficking of a drug that had claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people in the state.

He said Jiren and three other like-minded canines and their KBI handlers formed the first K-9 unit in Kansas trained to work on investigations specific to transportation by road, rail, air and mail the inexpensive white powder responsible for an implosion of overdose deaths and poisonings.

“We are taking this fight to the dealers and the dope dealers who are bringing this poison into our communities,” Mattivi said. “Without the canines we are flying blind when it comes to being able to detect fentanyl. We have to put ourselves in a better position to be able to intercept the drugs that are being transported into our state. What we see coming with regard to fentanyl looks to me like a tidal wave.”

In fiscal year 2022, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the nation had 41,000 people die to gun violence, 42,000 deaths in vehicle accidents, 46,000 suicides and 107,000 perished from drug poisoning. Two-thirds of the total drug fatalities was linked to synthetic opioids.

At the same time, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency labs reported six of 10 pills seized by the agency contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. The substance is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin.

The 2023 Kansas Legislature and Gov. Laura Kelly responded to the crisis by raising the criminal penalties for manufacture or distribution of fentanyl. The state lawmakers also decriminalized use of test strips that could detect presence of the pharmaceutical substance.

Attorney General Kris Kobach said he emphasized during his 2022 campaign the necessity of adding statutory and investigatory tools to combating fentanyl. He said he was convinced criminal sanctions had to be elevated and creation of a Kansas task force could be useful. He didn’t consider the potential of a K-9 unit working alongside law enforcement.

“Sounded like something that was not being done yet and sounded like something that had huge potential,” Kobach said. “I have no doubt that we’re going to see great success.”

KHP Col. Erik Smith, who was recently appointed by the governor, said the state’s response to fentanyl had to include a campaign to bring education and awareness to the fact a few grains of fentanyl could kill.

He said the reality of 107,000 fentanyl deaths annually in the United States could be difficult to place in perspective.

“As a frame of reference, this compares to about 700 Boeing 737 airliners carrying about 148 passengers each … going down every year,” Smith said. “The Kansas Highway Patrol is committed to doing everything in our power to interdict this deadly poison before it hits your household and kills your loved ones.”

Daniel Neill, with the Midwest office of the high intensity drug trafficking effort, said the White House program was designed to blend the contributions of federal, state and local agencies. The top drug threat in the Midwest a couple years ago was methamphetamine, he said. It’s still a problem, he said, but has been overtaken by fentanyl.

“In 2017, it was estimated there were 32 deaths in Kansas from synthetic opioids or fentanyl poisonings,” he said. “In 2021, it’s estimated there were 347 deaths. That’s an increase of over 984%. That’s way too many. That’s someone’s mother. That’s someone’s father. That’s someone’s cousin. That’s a friend. That’s a soccer teammate. And, if it seems like I’m angry about it, I am.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.