Some of the first people who confronted the opioid epidemic head-on were not teachers or doctors or parents, which you might expect, but police officers who saw a daily, sometimes hourly, surge in drug-related arrests and overdose deaths. For many families impacted by addiction, heart-crushing news of a loved one’s sudden passing was delivered by a member of their local police department.
“Officers want to see an end to addiction,” Tilton, New Hampshire Police Chief Robert Cormier says. “From every little town to every big city, we are all affected by it. We’ve never seen anything like it in our career.”
The realization officers quickly came to: We can’t arrest our way out of this crisis. They wanted to find ways to arrest addiction, just not necessarily with handcuffs.
There is a growing understanding, based on emerging scientific evidence and shared experience, that the need for connection is paramount to recovery. Police officers have been ahead of the curve in understanding the role connection plays in addressing substance use disorders.
In Chief Cormier’s small town, the drug that is most devastating to its population of 3,555 is fentanyl. It’s putting otherwise law-abiding people in jail, separating parents from children, and stealing siblings who are unaware that the product they purchased has been contaminated by this lethal drug.
Where did he go to prepare for the drug wave of the 2024? The schools.
New Hampshire was the second state, after New Jersey, to adopt Law Enforcement Against Drugs (LEAD), a drug prevention curriculum taught by police officers and teachers in tandem. LEAD has local police officers interact with kids on “friendly” turf and terms. Substance use and the disease of addiction are discussed in the safe space of classrooms. LEAD is aptly named, as it leads directly to trust, understanding, reduced stigma, and meaningful connections.
Police officers are also building safety nets that children and their families don’t always see. In Charleston, West Virginia, the state with the worst drug overdose rate in the country, law enforcement is an essential part of alerting schools when a child is exposed to a traumatic event.
“It could be a meth lab explosion, a domestic violence situation, a shooting in the neighborhood, witnessing a malicious wounding, a drug raid in the home” explains the West Virginia Center for Children’s Justice.
Police used to walk away from those scenes shaking their heads, thinking, “that kid doesn’t have a chance.” But today in Charleston, when law enforcement finds out where a child exposed to trauma attends school, they send the school a notice with the child’s name and a simple message that reads: “Handle With Care.” Part of the West Virginia Defending Childhood Initiative, the Handle With Care program activates a network of caring in the school, with offers of food, clean clothes, a place to rest, extra time for homework, and counseling if needed.
Innovative responses by law enforcement to the opioid crisis are in action across the country. Retired Chief Thomas Manger of Montgomery County, Maryland championed STEER: Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate, and Rehabilitate, which provides access to treatment as an alternative to arrest and booking.
Officers in Lake County, Illinois offer a program called A Way Out - literally. Anyone who needs help with a substance use disorder can walk into a police station, 24/7, and be fast-tracked to treatment.
“Why shouldn’t we be available for people? Whether it’s two in the afternoon or two in the morning, we don’t want to miss an opportunity to get someone into
treatment when they are ready,” says Chief Eric Guenther, who created the Lake County Opioid Initiative, and was named 2018 Chief of the Year by the Illinois Association of Chiefs.
New Castle County, Delaware has HERO HELP, where officers connect people charged with lesser crimes to a substance use counselor and treatment for drug addiction in lieu of arrest.
“I want to help people as a police officer,” says Lt. Jake Andrews of the New Castle County Police Department. “One of the most rewarding things is to get to see the difference. When a mother or father looks you in the eye and says ‘thank you,’ you feel good at the end of the day.”
Officers are quick to add, this isn’t about being soft on crime. This is about leverage, about knowing what’s causing criminal behavior, about finding solutions to an addiction crisis.
“The public should understand that when people commit crimes as byproduct of addiction, at the end of the day, the only way to stop the cycle is to get them into recovery and healthy,” says Chief Cormier.
“If you have a loved one expecting a child, you have a plan,” says retired Arlington, Massachusetts Police Chief Fred Ryan.
“We try to have that mindset and apply it to their loved one who has an SUD (substance use disorder). Let’s build a plan to ensure their survival.”
For the Arlington Police Department, the “moment of clarity,” as Captain Richard Flynn calls it, was immediately after the funeral of the daughter of a local firefighter. She survived two overdoses, but not the third. Chief Ryan challenged his department to innovate; every idea was on the table. They developed the Opiate Outreach Initiative, where officers go to a person after a drug overdose and help them find treatment. They equip family members to use the life-saving, overdose reversal drug naloxone as a “handshake” to communication.
“We will get you there, and we do,” says Captain Flynn. “We have also helped change the philosophy in our community. Before it was all behind closed doors. Today it’s okay to ask for help.”
Huntington, West Virginia’s moment came on August 15, 2016, when 26 overdoses were reported in a five-hour timeframe. The town looked to a program in Colerain, Ohio, replicated it, and deployed the Quick Response Team (QRT).
When QRT officers show up on the porch within 72 hours after an overdose, they trade their uniforms for plain clothes to reduce the intimidation factor. The team is made up of EMS personnel, a treatment provider, and a representative of a faith-based organization. A whole team, knocking on your door, there to convince you to take that first step away from addiction.
“I asked to be on the QRT,” says Bishop Charles Shaw. “And I ask everyone at the front door if they want me to pray with them. No one’s turned me down yet.”
Police officers have far more responsibility today than they did twenty years ago. Chief Cormier explains they must have a better understanding of the intersection of mental health and crime; sometimes they have to become “quasi-recovery coaches.” But being that bridge to recovery is a powerful way to serve and protect, not only the person struggling with addiction, but the entire community.
Years ago, when Cormier worked with incarcerated kids, he would ask them, “Why do you hate your parents? Your teachers? The police?” Their answer was always the same. “Nobody cares about me.” Arresting addiction, without handcuffs, but with innovative, compassionate, and life-saving responses, shows how much they do.