Police change their mindset after talking with former addicts

Written by Mike Argento/York Daily Record | Jul 9, 2018 7:00 AM
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Newsrooms across the commonwealth have spent years documenting the opioid crisis in their own communities. But now, in the special project State of Emergency: Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's Opioids Crisis, we are marshalling resources to spotlight what Pennsylvanians are doing to try to reverse the soaring number of overdose deaths.

WITF is releasing more than 60 stories, videos and photos throughout July. This week, you will find stories about police intervention, courts and treatment.

(York) -- It was always there, something that came with the job.

Every day, police officers encountered people in the throes of addiction, whether it's alcohol or drugs, and it had a tendency to harden attitudes, that those people the cops had to deal with were somehow lesser human beings, or that their inability to stop abusing whatever substance they preferred was some kind of moral failing.

Then, in the past four or five years, things started to change. More and more, Sgt. Richard Thompson of the Springettsbury Township police said, officers were encountering people addicted to heroin. "It just seemed to explode."  

Whether it was arresting a person caught shoplifting to support their addiction or a family dispute or an overdose, it seemed hardly a day would pass without a police officer encountering heroin addiction.

When the department was getting naloxone, Thompson recalled, the officers watched a training video to learn how to administer it. At the end of the video, an officer handed the person pamphlets and spoke about recovery. Thompson thought, "We don't have anything like that."

Around the same time, he had a friend of the family whose son had died from an overdose. Reading the obituary, he learned about Not One More and called the local chapter's founders to set up a meeting. The founders went beyond that. They arranged a meeting between the police and a group of recovering addicts.

Thompson was kind of apprehensive about the meeting. The police and addicts, it was fair to say, didn't have a good relationship. In the past, most of their encounters resulted in police putting somebody in handcuffs.

But the meeting - police officers at one side of the table and recovering addicts at the other - went well. The recovering addicts told their stories, how they became addicted, how their addiction grew out of control, how they wanted to stop but were powerless over the drug. One of the recovering addicts was the son of a cop. He thought, That could be my kid.

"I started to change my viewpoint," he said.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Thompson asked the addicts what they could as police officers do to help. The answer surprised him. "Keep enforcing the law," they said.

Another answer wasn't so much a surprise. "Treat us like human beings," they said.

It has changed how the department deals with addicts. They ask more questions, and not just police questions. They show that they care and that they are there to help.

It's hard to tell whether it's working. "You never know," Thompson said. "You know it can't hurt."

Vickie Glatfelter, president of the local chapter of Not One More, said Springettsbury Township police was the first local department to take the organization up on its offer to meet. "Law enforcement sees a different side of the issue," she said. "I think it's working."

York police naloxone.JPG

More and more, police encounter people in the throes of addiction. Sometimes an officer administers nalaxone to reverse an opioid overdose. (Photo: File, York Daily Record)

A few weeks ago, a young guy and his girlfriend stopped by the police station and asked for Thompson. The guy asked his girlfriend, "Is that the guy?" She said it was.

Not long ago, Thompson had revived the man with naloxone when he had overdosed in a parking lot. He followed up at the hospital and spoke to his girlfriend and told her how to get help.

The young man told Thompson he had gone into recovery.

And he thanked Thompson for saving his life.

"It gives you a lot of hope," he said. "People do get better."

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