February 20, 2017
The hovering claw, like a giant version of those in arcade games, reached down toward its mark.
Descending from roughly 60 feet in the air, the claw didn't miss its intended target, which wasn't a cute fuzzy toy.
About four times a year, Concord police take the 8-mile drive north from the downtown station to Wheelabrator Concord to drop off several boxes of drugs for destruction. On a recent trip, one large box and three medium ones, mainly full of marijuana, were the prize for that crane, as were drugs disposed of by several other police departments from New Hampshire and Vermont.
Once the crane latched onto the boxes, they were unceremoniously dropped into the incinerator. But unlike other trash that is burned to generate electricity, officers must watch the process to make sure the drugs are dropped in, never to return to human hands. Flames aren't visible from the ground, just the rising plume of smoke from the chimney towering overhead.
"Once it's in there, we call it good," Concord Property Officer and Detective Matthew Lankhorst said outside Wheelabrator on a snowy morning. "We know no one's going in there after it or they're not coming out."
Each disposal burn at Wheelabrator costs the city a flat fee of $150. The energy-from-waste facility disposes of 575 tons of local trash each day. They use those waste materials to supply the electrical needs of 14,000 New Hampshire homes, as well as their own operations.
Concord police destroyed an estimated 200 pounds of old evidence during its last drop-off in January. The items included shredded paper, illicit drugs and prescription medicine collected as part of the drug take-back initiative.
But getting rid of drugs isn't as easy as taking a drive to the dump. Most of the drugs seized by the department are held for months, sometimes years, as evidence in a pending criminal case.
The evidence has to be boxed, cataloged and stored, and then eventually destroyed by court order when it is no longer of use.
"Evidence collection is a never-ending problem," said retired Concord police lieutenant Tim O'Malley during a sit-down interview separate from the January burn. "The intake outweighs the outtake."
Officers seize the majority of illicit drugs incidental to arrests for other crimes. For example, police may arrest someone on a drunken driving charge but later discover drugs in the suspect's vehicle or coat pocket.
"A lot of it trickles in through these types of situations," O'Malley said. "Occasionally, we'll have a big search warrant."
Other drugs have come to the department through a take-back box at its Green Street lobby since 2015. About 600 pounds of prescription drugs have been collected since then, Lankhorst said. People can drop off medication in the box anonymously, no questions asked.
Destruction of those drugs is easy because they were given up voluntarily, not as part of a criminal investigation.
Lankhorst and Property Technician Mike Kulak, who is a retired police officer, have most recently tackled drug evidence from the early 2000s. However, there are likely drugs from the 1980s and 1990s still stowed away in bankers boxes in the department's storage room, Lankhorst said.
"There's a backlog. We've made a large dent, but the work is never done."
If it weren't for Kulak working part time to reduce the backlog, the department would be lucky to participate in even one burn a year, Lankhorst said. Drug and other evidence intake takes precedent, and is increasingly demanding more resources as New Hampshire grapples with a multi-year addiction crisis, he said.
"The people who use drugs are primarily the ones committing most of our property crimes," Lankhorst said, noting that in those cases police seize not only the drugs, but the stolen items, too.
And, in some cases, they could be sitting on that evidence for decades. There are examples of people who've fled New Hampshire to avoid apprehension, and there is little local police can do until the individuals are caught and a judge orders their return.
Lankhorst said the system police have for inventorying drugs isn't perfect, but it has come a long way.
"If you ask me where a drug is from a particular case, I can narrow it down to a box and, in five minutes, find it for you," he said.
Officers are constantly updating the department's drug inventory list, which Lankhorst and Kulak use as a starting point to determine what might be eligible for the burn pile. A final list must accompany the motion to destroy, which is filed in Merrimack County Superior Court and must be ruled on by a judge.
There are certain dates reserved throughout the year for police officers to destroy drugs, and they have just a two-hour window to do so. When officers arrive at the location on those days, they must also supply Wheelabrator with an inventory list of what's in the boxes to burn.
Concord police makes sure all the drugs are in thick plastic bags inside the boxes, so that when the crane crushes the cardboard the drugs don't spill out.
Lankhorst said he hasn't seen any spills yet, and the latest visit was no exception.
Several officers were quick to lend a hand as the line of sport utility vehicles, vans and four-door sedans backed up to the facility's entrance for unloading. The boxes were thrown into the bucket of a tractor before they took the short trip inside the warehouse to the base of the incinerator.
Several officers gathered a step outside the building to watch as the crane pivoted and opened its claw on the pile of boxes dumped that morning.