The Indiana State Police's Methamphetamine Suppression Section (MSS) seizes hundreds of meth labs a month. The troopers assigned to the unit encounter plenty of hazardous chemicals, dangerous "shake and bake" meth labs, and children living in meth-cooking environments.
The unit has emerged as the first call for local agencies that discover labs in their jurisdiction. MSS troopers respond to 97% of meth labs reported throughout Indiana with 17 full-time investigators and 102 mostly road troopers available on an on-call basis.
Rather than seizing elaborate, cartel-driven operations, the unit sees plenty of smaller meth sellers using a method known as "shake and bake" or "one pot" meth. Meth produced in soda bottles allows dealers to carry their product around easily in coat pockets or backpacks, transforming the dealer into a walking meth lab.
In the "one-pot" method, meth-making chemicals are dumped into an empty soda bottle, which streamlines the manufacturing process. Dealers set up a mini-meth lab with a few products from around the house, some cold medication, and an empty two-liter bottle of soda. About 90% of MSS cases include the "one-pot" method.
"We're dealing with these mom-and-pop meth labs every day, and they're all over the place," Sergeant Mike Toles said.
Although supplies aren't very costly or high tech, a two-liter soda bottle can produce several hundreds of dollars in meth revenue from a single mixing. These one-bottle meth labs may not seem extravagant, but they're no less dangerous than other meth lab because they can blow up and cause flash fires.
The unit also encounters other methods. The "Nazi method" uses anhydrous ammonia; it was reportedly developed by Germans during WWII. The "Red-P" method gets its name from the use of red phosphorus.
Meth is produced in a range of different settings across Indiana, and the MSS has seen it all.
"They're cooking in closets, they're cooking in attics, they're cooking in cars, they're cooking in mopeds going down the road with the one pot, trench coats, you name it," says Toles.
The process of seizing labs and prosecuting dealers starts with leads the MSS receives from local officers and deputies. MSS troopers obtain a search warrant and pay a visit. When MSS investigators enter a meth lab they're geared up with protective equipment that shields them from hazards that pollute the environment.
Safety equipment includes self-contained breathing apparatuses, air monitors that detect unseen chemicals so officers know where and when to breathe without a mask, and chemical suits to protect officers from exposure to other hazards.
Chemical hazards include flammable solvents such as red phosphorus, flammable liquids such as acetone or alcohol, hypo-phosphorous and sulfuric acids, and bases such as sodium hydroxide. Other hazards include limited visibility caused by smoke in the air, confined spaces depending on where the meth lab is located, and leaking containers or slipping hazards.
The unit sends one of its 16 safety vehicles to each scene. Each vehicle cost about $100,000 to equip with tools such as cameras and recorders, fire extinguishers, water hoses, power inverters, GPS, and some of the safety equipment troopers use on scene.
The scene investigation begins when troopers set up "hot zones" to locate the bulk of the chemicals. These areas are sealed off from most personnel while they're processed. Processing the crime scene can take up to three hours. As much evidence as possible will be collected, but First Sergeant Niki Crawford says the job is tricky since the evidence will eventually be destroyed.
Officers can destroy evidence only after it's been photographed and witnessed by two officers. Some evidence is taken to a lab to be checked for traces of methamphetamine and other drugs or chemicals. Crawford describes the task as "CSI work in a hazardous material environment."
Once the crime scene is fully processed, the unit must call the health department, fire department and child protective services if children are involved.
"We've had meth labs where we've taken four to six children out of the home, and they're living in the environment where drugs are being made," Crawford said.
Manufacturers are often charged with manufacturing meth, procession of meth, as well as possession of two or more precursors with the intent of manufacturing meth.
To seize meth labs effectively and legally, MSS troopers complete extensive training, including a 40-hour crime lab certification school, 24 hours of on-the-job training, and eight hours of recertification every year.
During training, officers cook meth to understand the process. The training also covers learning how to work safely around the hazards of meth labs, proper use of protective equipment, and how to properly process a lab.
Troopers can join MSS by submitting an application, but some have been recruited because of the need for assistance.
A proactive officer with an interest in criminal investigations and the ability to put together a strong case report makes for a successful MSS member, Toles said.
The workload can be demanding. Unit supervisors try to spread out duties by creating balance in shifts, but when the phone rings in the middle of the night they must step up. The knowledge that they're keeping Indiana communities safe from the ravages of meth often provides their greatest reward.
Editor's note: This special unit profile is the latest in a series of Web-exclusive career profiles on PoliceMag.com. Read more profiles here.