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Today, Akron's meth unit has 11 officers trained for two-pronged duty: They sniff out labs, then suit up in protective gear to clean out the hazardous materials they find.
"We love doing this," says Lieutenant Brian Simcox from across the room. "People don't want to be in Akron and do this, because they know we'll be looking for them."
Bulky and bald, Simcox is an overstuffed encyclopedia when it comes to meth, prone to busting out info on the drug and its production, and evangelizing on its ills. He's also a vocal counterpoint to Crockett, a stocky, dark-haired cop who talks about the job in an understated voice that shrugged off any sense of surprise long ago.
Together, they're the high-profile pair that fronts the crew. Meth makers know their names — even their work schedules, sometimes timing cooking sessions for when the officers are off the clock.
Like a coach boasting about the cleanup hitter in his lineup, Simcox isn't shy about singing the praises of Crockett, whom he calls the best meth cop in the state. "If somebody gets popped with meth, they want to know where Crockett is."
Meth cooks in Akron's Kenmore neighborhood have even printed up T-shirts that read "Don't Let Crockett in Your Pocket."
"They fear him," says Simcox, "but they also respect him."
Both cops' street reputation is a testament to their dedication — especially given the practical handicaps that go with the work. For one thing, there aren't any Armani-suited dons doing Tony Montana nose-dives into mountains of meth in the ballroom of their beachfront spread.
Since there are no kingpins, there is little practical incentive to pour resources into investigations and no stockpile of assets that can be sold off to fund later efforts — the bottom line of the drug war. Akron's cops thrive anyway.
The meth unit isn't a full-time detail, but a patchwork of specialists from across the department. Simcox and Crockett work regular patrols — standard police work from day to day, with lab hunts when time allows; at their current clip, they snag a few each week. Like a SWAT assignment, the work eats up their personal time, with officers logging extra hours whenever a lab needs cleaning. Both have been on duty for nearly all 70 of this year's calls.
Simcox and Crockett attribute the increase in lab busts to the advent of the one-pot method, but also the tanked economy, which they believe has driven more people to drug use. They also say that Akron's meth lab count doesn't indicate the city has a standout problem — only that they've made it a point to spread the word on how to spot the meth scene better than others have. Monthly presentations alerting community groups and council wards to suspicious activity have resulted in a steady stream of tips.
The unit also has an open dialogue with children's services — an unfortunately steady source of information. A lot of meth is cooked in the presence of children; Crockett and Simcox, both family men, prioritize calls involving kids — a fact grimly highlighted by the previous night's work.
Although the unit is officially lockjawed on details, it will later be revealed that members had been up late the previous night cleaning up a lab at a house in a run-down neighborhood. The cook was discovered after EMS responded to a call about a dead 17-month-old boy. Police found a lab in the basement space where the child had been living; the mother, 20-year-old Heather Lerch, and three friends were charged with murder after the coroner determined the baby died from inhaling meth fumes.
Rolling through a shabby residential street in east Akron, Chris Crockett has one hand guiding the wheel, the other holding up his iPhone on speaker as it pipes in an obnoxious nu-metal ringtone. "Okay, that's driving me nuts," he says before the voicemail kicks in. "Dude, answer your phone and change your ring tone."
Crockett is dialing up a source for specifics on an address a couple blocks over. The guy's horse-trading meth lab clues in exchange for leniency on a recent bath salt bust. As the cruiser approaches the weather-bruised two-story brick duplex, Crockett drops the car into a slow glide, trying to spot blackened windows, fans, or surveillance cameras — the usual giveaways that a cook is under way inside.
"Sometimes they're going to know that we're watching, and they'll sit and wait and hide their stuff," he says while panning a spotlight over the lot. "But they won't get rid of it, the meth oil. They've been working so hard to get it made."
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