UPDATE: Number of federal prosecutors tripling as part of Project Huntington
Federal prosecutors will soon be tripling their numbers in Huntington to help fight the city's drug problem.
U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart said a surge has already doubled the numbers and more are on the way. It was part an announcement Thursday morning to unveil Project Huntington.
"Our goal is very simple, to make Huntington the safest city in America," Stuart said.
It was an outdoor announcement on a cold morning that Stuart and others hope puts the chill in area drug dealers and traffickers.
"As God is my witness, I'm a West Virginian, son of a coal miner. We're taking the streets back," Stuart said.
It’s an effort headlined by federal agencies like the DEA, ATF and FBI, but supported and partnered with local agencies like the Cabell County Prosecutor and Huntington police.
"It couldn't have come at a better time," said Prosecutor Corky Hammers.
Interim HPD Chief Hank Dial said he hopes recent initiatives are working, with 19 search warrants since mid-December, 30 indictments in just the 28 days of last month and a 27 percent crime reduction so far compared to last year.
"I can't say enough about how excited I am about the partnership and the solution that is going to create," Dial said.
“This is a complex issue,” said Mayor Steve Williams. “People are suffering from addiction and so many things that we have to do. We have to have prevention and intervention. We absolutely have to have treatment. But make no mistake about it, we have to have law enforcement."
"There is no question that law enforcement, swift, strong law enforcement, absolutely works in the area of drugs," he said.
"The biggest hurdle right now is sheer numbers, the number of arrests and the number of the defendants," Hammers said.
Which is why the announcement of reinforcements was so welcome Thursday.
Stuart said the federal prison population is down 17 percent so "there's plenty of room at the inn."
Mayor Williams said he hopes the initiative is successful and is copied by others.
"We're going to set standards that others around the country seek to follow. Project Huntington will be Project West Virginia and, in turn, the entire nation will be able to see this is how we can move forward."
We also reached out the Harmony House.
Executive Director Amanda Coleman was not available for an interview but released a statement:
“I support efforts to keep drugs out of our community and believe a focus on those trafficking into Huntington and preying upon our most vulnerable is a good idea. My hope is that we will also continue to emphasize the addiction of resources for treatment and recovery because we cannot arrest ourselves out of this problem. Both strategies will take time. We didn’t get here in two years and we won’t get out in that time frame either. However, we have already seen signs of improvement, with fewer overdose deaths and less stigma associated with substance use disorder.”
Making Huntington the “Safest City in America” is a goal for city, state and federal officials in “Project Huntington.”
They gathered Thursday morning for a news conference at the Sidney L. Christie Federal Building in downtown Huntington. Among those there were Huntington Mayor Steve Williams, interim Huntington Police Department Chief Hank Dial, Cabell County Prosecutor Sean "Corky" Hammers and U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart.
It was announced that special agents will be assigned to work the opioid epidemic problem in Huntington.
“I have ordered a surge of federal prosecutors in Huntington – doubling the number of prosecutors and, within weeks, tripling our office and we will add even more prosecutors as circumstances require,” Stuart said in a release. “My team is led by Assistant United States Attorney Monica Coleman, a veteran prosecutor with a record of aggressive, fearless prosecution and she will lead a team wholly dedicated to this effort.”
Stuart said the message couldn’t be more clear -- violent criminals and those connected with the drug epidemic will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.