Life on narcotics task force taxing, rewarding for FLPD detective

Heroin use a major problem, Karnes says


Clint Riese
News Editor

Ask most police officers and they will tell you their job is not as glamorous as Hollywood makes it seem. For every bank robber on the loose, there are thousands of parking violations, missing bicycles or crowd control shifts.

But for Forest Lake Police Department Detective Matt Karnes, the excitement is sometimes all too real. He is in his fifth and final year on the Washington County Coordinated Narcotics Task Force, a small team that handles big drug cases.

It’s a position that keeps Karnes on his toes.

“It’s a very fluid job,” he said. “You never know. Every day is different from the next. You could work 9 to 5 one week and be home every night, and the next two weeks you don’t even start work until midnight.”

The 38-year-old remains a full-fledged member of the local department but also has an office in Stillwater. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office oversees the task force and provides a sergeant, two deputies and a canine unit. Along with FLPD, the police departments from Cottage Grove and Woodbury each assign one officer to the task force. The county pays for their overtime, vehicle, gas and most training. The group responds as one unit to cases throughout the county.

Karnes, a Forest Lake native, follows FLPD patrol officer Pat Ferguson, who from 2005 to 2009 was the first local representative on the task force. Affiliation with the organization is a “force multiplier” for Forest Lake, Karnes said; the department is not losing a member, but essentially gaining six highly trained, experienced and motivated officers with state-of-the-art equipment.

“Our goal is to have a positive impact on the quality of life,” Karnes said.

Task Force Life

Karnes returned to his hometown as a FLPD patrol officer in 2004. His interest in the task force was strengthened by working closely with Ferguson. When Karnes applied to replace Ferguson on the task force in 2009, he faced little competition.

“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of people that want to do it just because there’s a lot of work involved into it,” he said. “It’s not your typical even police shift. You’re called at all hours of the day, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. You’re working Christmas Eve. Very hard on the family.”

Karnes was greeted by weeks of training followed by a steep learning curve.

“You could be a cop for 15 years going into this and your first year or two be going, ‘Whoa,’” he said. “Your head’s spinning because it’s a totally different job in all aspects of it.”

That, in part, is why Karnes chose to serve a full five-year term. The minimum term of three years is barely enough to get a full grasp on the duties, he said.

Some task force responsibilities are harder than others to embrace. A lot of writing is required for reports and search warrants. Slow-paced surveillance is also common.

However, there are plenty of duties that television show writers would find inspiring. The task force is called upon at the discretion of the county’s police departments for large narcotics cases. The six-man team’s ultimate goal is to follow the trail of drugs to its source.

“Somebody that’s using on the street level had to get it from somebody, and that person had to get it from somebody, and that person had to get it from somebody,” Karnes said. “Our goal is to work up that ladder and try to figure out who’s bringing it in, and stop them.”

Climbing the ladder can involve surveillance, turning suspects into confidential informants, or even undercover street buys by the task force members themselves.

The undercover assignments are not taken lightly, Karnes said. An officer must pass three “schools” before being considered for such work. Each operation is planned meticulously, as the task force brainstorms and prepares for all possible scenarios.

“It’s very difficult,” Karnes said. “You’re basically going into the unknown. You don’t know what’s going to happen there, but you just have to trust in your training and most of your trust falls back on your partners that are watching you.”

When the task force gets high enough up the ladder, it collaborates with state and federal agencies such as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension or the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Occasionally, Karnes and his team play a role in cases with national implications.

During Karnes’ tenure, the task force helped nab a local man the DEA had been investigating for years who had ties to a major Hispanic street gang. An informant infiltrated the circle of the man, who is now serving 60 years in state prison for his role in cocaine distribution.

Another case involved an anonymous tipster claiming that $1 million in cash and 1,000 pounds of marijuana were hidden at a local business. The task force, again working under the authority of a bigger organization, helped prove the tip credible. The business was a front for an operation smuggling drugs across the country. A man involved is serving life in prison, and the agencies are still following up on peripheral leads from the case.

Karnes will return to his former role as a patrol officer when his task force term ends in December. FLPD is in the process of finding his replacement.

“I certainly enjoyed it,” Karnes said. “It was certainly an eye-opener.”

Drug Scene

With big-case successes come sad realizations for Karnes.

“I really had no idea of the scope of the drug issues until I was assigned to this unit,” said the father of two. “You have a baseline understanding as a patrol officer, but you really have an eye-opener once you work this in-depth for about five years. It really changes your viewpoint.”

The local drug scene changes like anything else, and for the task force, the latest concern is heroin.

Illicit use of oxycodone, a prescription pain-reliever, was the rage a few years ago. Pharmaceutical companies changed the makeup of oxycodone products to a time-release formula, eliminating the quick high for abusers. Karnes believes this led to the rush for heroin, a cheaper opiate.

Testing of DEA street buys traditionally showed heroin coming into the Twin Cities area to be about 50 percent pure, Karnes said. However, when the interest spiked, so did the drug’s potency. Local heroin tested out in 2011 with a purity of 92 percent. Karnes believes it was an intentional move by drug trafficking organizations: Hit new users with potent product, then scale it back to require them to purchase a larger amount.

Suddenly, unsuspecting users were overdosing left and right. In a sobering presentation to the Forest Lake Rotary Club last month, Karnes said that Forest Lake was hit hard.

“It seemed to be on a weekly basis we were getting called out in the middle of the night for a heroin overdose or a heroin death, not just in Forest Lake, but we just happened to be the hardest-hit per capita,” he said. “But throughout the county we were just getting killed, no pun intended.”

Heroin is still a huge concern, Karnes told the Times.

“The problem is there’s no quality control,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re getting. You’re rolling the dice every time you buy this stuff.”

Like any city of its size, Forest Lake has marijuana, meth and synthetic drugs, Karnes said, noting that cocaine use has fallen. There is also prescription drug misuse, which is a different type of animal, he said.

Nearly all of the task force’s work begins at the police department level, Karnes said. He encourages residents to report any concerns to police, whether it be people smoking marijuana in public or strange, short-term traffic patterns at a neighbor’s house.

“Anything suspicious, don’t hesitate to call,” Karnes said.

(Editor’s note: Due to the nature of the task force’s duties, Karnes requested that no image of him be used with this article.)