STILLWATER — A group of teenagers play a spirited pickup basketball game at one end of an apartment complex. A mother tries to corral her playful children after an afternoon walk. They don’t want to go inside; there is daylight to burn.
Suddenly, a narcotics agent dressed all in black emerges from a black sport utility vehicle with tinted windows. He carries a semi-automatic rifle and wears a bulletproof vest with one word emblazoned on the back: “POLICE.”
“Ma’am,” the agent says firmly, “please step inside with the children. Now!”
Terrified, the mother herds her children inside. At that moment, there is the thunderous sound of a battering ram crashing against the door of a nearby apartment. Officers from the Payne County Sheriff’s Department, the Stillwater Police Department and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control storm into the two-bedroom unit, arrest two suspects and confiscate a one-pot methamphetamine lab.
The Feb. 19 bust shows the day-to-day reality experienced by uniformed and undercover law enforcement officials operating on the front lines of the battle against illicit drugs. Many Oklahomans appear indifferent to the problem, but to the agents on the street, it feels like being in a war.
“These deals can go bad in a hurry,” the narcotics agent says matter-of-factly at the conclusion of the Stillwater raid. (Undercover agents are not identified in this story for their protection.)
This raid was part of a sting operation at three pharmaceutical outlets against people trying to purchase pseudoephedrine for the production of methamphetamine — an activity known as “smurfing.” Pseudoephedrine is an ingredient in some cold medicines.
One arrest led to a tip about an operating meth lab. Officers secured a local judge’s signature for a search warrant, mobilized in a secluded area near the apartment complex, and executed the raid. Total time: two hours.
The two-day operation netted 20 suspects, four meth labs and a handful of informants to build future cases — small, yet meaningful gains in an otherwise relentless tide of drug activity.
In recent months, similar sting operations have yielded impressive numbers. Agents executed 334 arrests in the Tulsa metro area in November; made six arrests on a quiet Thursday night in Chickasha; and hauled in another 90 Tulsa-area suspects on a Sunday in February.
“Battling the drug problem is a tough business,” said Brian Surber, a state narcotics agent who specializes in surveillance. “Most of the time, I feel like I’m bailing an entire lake with a coffee cup.”
Public apathy isn’t helping.
“I believe Oklahomans have masks on,” said Darrel Weaver, director of the state Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control. “They just don’t want to take their masks off. The bottom line is it affects all Oklahomans.”
No county, community, economic or racial class is immune to Oklahoma’s drug problem, Weaver said.
“I think it would scare some people to know that sitting in the parking lot of that convenience store, or sitting in that restaurant parking lot, is a drug deal,” Weaver said.