HUNT team helps local police agencies tackle drug problem in Northeast Michigan
ALPENA — The proliferation of illegal drugs in Northeast Michigan continues to be a high-priority concern, according to local law enforcement officers.
One of the most effective resources in addressing that concern, officials said, is the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team, which, despite dealing with a staffing shortage, still helps disrupt the drug trade in Northeast Michigan and assists other law enforcement agencies in various counties.
The team, a partnership between law enforcement agencies across Northeast Michigan, helps local police agencies facing their own staffing challenges extend their reach in combating one of the region’s most prolific crimes. A 2021 News investigation found the rate of drug arrests in Northeast Michigan vastly exceeded the statewide drug arrest rate.
“Your road patrols are out, responding to complaints, responding to calls for service, they don’t have the time to dedicate into narcotics trafficking, to really investigate as their sole purpose,” Alpena County Sheriff Erik Smith said. “So your HUNT investigations are a lot more in depth.”
“There is no denying that there are drugs readily available in our communities,” Alpena Police Chief Eric Hamp said. “The HUNT team is critical to stopping its spread.”
Founded in 1990, HUNT is a multijurisdictional task force that operates primarily in Alpena, Alcona, Presque Isle, and Montmorency counties. The group is governed by those four counties in addition to Alpena, Rogers City, and the Michigan State Police, with representatives from each jurisdiction acting as the HUNT Board of Directors.
Each member entity of HUNT contributes to the task force either through a financial contribution or through the donation of an officer. HUNT is based in the State Police post in Alpena, where it is overseen by the Team Commander Detective Lt. Stu Sharp.
As an undercover task force, HUNT has the ability to locate suspects and intervene in crimes in progress through surveillance methods such cellphone tracking.
“We have the luxury of being covert, so we are very adept at surveillance,” Sharp said. “A lot of times, when you’re trying to locate suspects or trying to intervene in a crime that’s in progress, we have the ability to survey that and go undetected.”
Those capabilities make HUNT a valuable resource, Smith said.
“HUNT is very important for our community,” he said. “Because they can work undercover, they can see things we don’t see.”
In 2022, HUNT was responsible for 50 arrests, according to the agency’s annual report — 50% of those in Alpena, 20% elsewhere in Alpena County, 18% in Presque Isle County, 6% in Montmorency County, 2% in Alcona County, and 4% in a jurisdiction outside the typical ones in which HUNT operates.
“Statistics like this where arrests are made are misleading,” Sharp said. “Just because an arrest was made in Alpena County does not mean that person wasn’t destined for Presque Isle, or Cheboygan, or Emmet County.”
According to Sharp, the illegal drug trade is a complex network that freely moves from one county to another and has people embedded in every jurisdiction either as suppliers, movers, or recipients. Many of those identified in investigations either receive drugs from or take drugs to other areas, and, thus, Sharp believes, it is crucial to view drug crime as an intercounty issue.
“If we arrest someone, regardless of where it is, they got the drugs from somewhere and they were destined for somewhere else,” Sharp said.
The statewide shortage of police officers in Michigan has resulted in a staffing issue that has forced some agencies to withdraw some of their contributions to HUNT.
Sharp claims that, despite that setback, HUNT’s approach to addressing crime in Northeast Michigan will remain unchanged.
“Staffing is a huge issue for us,” Sharp said. “We don’t shy away from the work. The guys on the team are dedicated and motivated.”
On top of all their investigative work to address the illegal drug trade, HUNT also involves itself in public outreach aimed at youth to cut off drug use before it starts.
Some of that outreach consists of commercials, billboards, pamphlets, and social media posts all aimed at warning youth about the dangers of substance abuse. Sharp hopes those kinds of campaigns will become just as synonymous with HUNT as their investigations.
“Education is an equal component to enforcement,” Sharp said. “I think it’s my responsibility to try to educate and hopefully break the problem before it becomes a problem.”