Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (TFC)— In recent months, echoes of the opioid crisis throughout Milwaukee County have increasingly crept into the news. Each municipality is all too familiar with vague reports of heroin raids, fentanyl busts, and overdose clean ups. Whereas some areas openly discuss the issue, however, others keep to themselves. That’s what The Fifth Column News has found in Wauwatosa, a quiet opioid issue with few resources to learn more.
Wauwatosa (Tosa) is a mostly white section of Milwaukee County halfway between the deep suburbs and inner city. As a result, issues some more distant suburbs may not often experience can be commonplace in Tosa. Over the last couple years, opioid-related crimes and overdoses have increasingly occurred in the unassumingly quiet town. In 2017, the problem is evolving to routinely include fentanyl alongside cocaine, and heroin seizures.
As an example, June 15th, 2017 saw two overdoses four blocks from one another in Wauwatosa. One resulted in a car accident, and both occurred in a dense business and bar area. Those streets, in fact, are among Tosa’s most popular recreational strips in Tosa besides its village and mall. Numerous busts have occurred right on the Tosa-Milwaukee eastern border in the last couple years involving heroin, crack cocaine, and other volatile substances. WPD’s Special Operations Group (SOG) hadn’t publicly admitted to capturing crack in Tosa until just five years ago.
To begin assessing the opioid crisis county-wide, Milwaukee officials produced an analysis of over 800 overdose deaths. The data was released publicly in 2016 and provided insight into how the opioid crisis works demographically. Whether by age, race, or gender the report urged immediate responses to lessen the body count. “All corners” of Milwaukee County were noted as affected by opioid overdose, including Wauwatosa.
The revelation may have offended the assumptions of many who view Wauwatosa as one of Milwaukee’s “nicer” or “safer” parts. Beyond isolated snippets in its public police reports, though, Tosa’s opioid issues are largely undiscussed.
Even following the death of 18-year-old Emma Lorenz after a friend helped her buy heroin, there was little discussion of Tosa’s problems. For her death, 18-year-old Kendall Marinier–who helped her get the drugs–was charged with first-degree reckless homicide.
However, beyond condemning Marinier and mourning Lorenz’s overdose no discussion on how widespread Tosa’s issues are was had. Both teens were well known in Tosa’s high schools, and the tragic event brought mixed emotions. While some blamed Marinier, others noted how naivety to the realities of drugs and sheltering may have been just as responsible.
The Fifth Column News has attempted to shed light on the extent of Tosa’s opioid issues but to little avail. Numerous open records requests filed with the police department, including for a yearly drug seizure report, have been denied.
Most recently, WPD denied a request for the number of overdoses the department has responded to in 2017. Administrative Sgt. Katie Gierach also informed TFC that Tosa PD will not comment on the local opioid issue at all. Wauwatosa’s Health Department also didn’t have data on the city available, stating some may be developed by the end of the year.
Wauwatosa’s Mayor Kathy Ehly did, however, eventually respond to requests for comment. “I am greatly concerned on this matter”, she said in an email, “but this is an issue greater than I. I know many people in Wauwatosa are concerned about the increase in drug use and overdose but I do not get emails or phone calls about it. The people of Wauwatosa are more concerned with the fallout from the drug trade that impacts them with crime, robberies, safety issues, car thefts and carjackings”.
Ehley states she’s kept briefed by the police on drug-related issues, and recommended filing a complaint about open records denials. Additionally, she spoke directly to the questioning sent to her by TFC writers, which was critical of the city’s lack of transparency in regards to drug issues.
“The questions in your email imply that the police and public health officials, or the elected officials, can make this all stop, make the drug issue go away so why aren’t we doing that. I wish it were that simple because if I had that power to just make it stop, I would. It could be very helpful if you investigated and reported on what prompts an individual to try drugs, take drugs and opiods in the first place knowing how destructive opiod use is. By reporting that perhaps you would deter someone from starting on drugs or opiods. It could be very helpful if you investigated why individuals choose to go in the business to sell drugs knowing how destructive the drug is to people. Perhaps with the information you discover you could be part of helping find the solution.”
That being said, it’s scarcely a mystery as to why people–including teenagers–would take drugs like opioids. Numerous factors may contribute to drug use, both on an individual and society-level basis. You can look at racial disparities found in the Milwaukee overdose analysis, such as young whites in their early-mid 20’s trending towards heroin. Blacks examined for the study, however, died from cocaine-related overdoses and at a much older age of around 40 or 50. Explaining why that trend is there is one thing, but disclosing that it exists is another.
In Wauwatosa, there appears to exist a lack of data from which residents can assess how extensive opioid-related issues are. Drug overdoses are just one statistic that’s unknown for the suburb. In Wauwatosa, it’s not even known how many drugs are seized yearly.
Each year, Tosa PD is supposed to publish an annual report providing summaries of its activities. While there’s a section for the amount of drugs captured, it’s only for the small Special Operations Group. Similarly, despite overdoses being mentioned in these and shorter public reports, the number even in 2017 alone is unknown. Several prescription pill stores have been robbed in Tosa in recent months by individuals looking specifically for opioids. Information on the issue available to residents is not evolving alongside the problem itself.
It’s a wall of silence some residents have noticed spring forth whenever controversy finds its way to Wauwatosa. Whether it’s the 2016 police shooting of Jay Anderson or the debate of bulldozing a large portion of natural habitat, a barrier exists between Tosa officials and residents. It’s embodied by a lack of information, or commentary on, difficult situations which may bring a bad image to the suburb. Currently, Wauwatosa is undergoing perpetual development and construction including a focus on small businesses. With a strategy hinging on spending their money in Wauwatosa, but perhaps not live there, negative press isn’t desired.
As the opioid issue throughout the county worsens, it’ll be increasingly more difficult for this to go on. Eventually, as with the Jay Anderson Wauwatosa shooting, too many people will begin asking too many questions. Until then, the clearest information on Tosa’s opioid issues may remain redacted echoes from police reports, and tragic stories whispered among friends.