News

Police protect and serve opioid users in Columbia County

Written by Susan Schwartz/Press Enterprise | Jul 9, 2018 3:30 PM
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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.

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FILE - In this May 13, 2015 photo, the contents of a drug overdose rescue kit is seen at a training session in Buffalo, N.Y. Police in Columbia County now carry naloxone, which reverses the effects of heroin and prescription painkillers. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson)

(Berwick) -- When a drug addict showed up at the Beyond Violence domestic violence shelter here, police responded -- not with handcuffs, but with a referral to a drug rehabilitation program.

Instead of putting all their efforts into enforcement, officers here are connecting people to treatment.

"We're here to protect and serve," said Police Chief Kenneth Strish. "That includes addicts."

So far, he said, the police department has placed seven people into rehabilitation.

Most were referred by family members or social service agencies. A few sought help on their own.

With beds at treatment centers in short supply, he said, a call from a police chief can help get people a place.

"And if we can get them into treatment, they're not committing crimes to fuel their addiction," Strish said. 

'Doesn't seem right' 

Police have also provided resources for 10 to 20 people who have called on behalf of family members, Strish said.

No one has shown up seeking help while carrying drugs or paraphernalia. If someone did, it would be up to the officer who responds whether or not to make an arrest.

"But most of the people we're dealing with when they come in are either drunk or high," he said. To charge them, officers need to get search warrants. It's time consuming and results in only a minor possession charge, he noted.

"It just doesn't seem right," he said.

'They have dreams'

His department still comes down hard on those who deal drugs, he said. And if someone suddenly seeks treatment as drug investigators close in, "it's going to raise an eyebrow," Strish said.

"If someone is an entrepreneur, making cash off of addictions, that's someone we're going to hunt," he said.

Strish has spoken with hundreds of addicts.

"They have dreams and goals in life," he said. "I believe addiction is a disease, and we have to battle addiction."

It's a different role for officers, who are trained to enforce the law, not provide social services.

But the drug crisis has blurred that line.

'Options are limited'

Police in Columbia County now carry Naloxone, which instantly reverses a drug overdose, provided through a program started by Columbia County District Attorney Tom Leipold.

In 2017, Berwick officers responded to 41 drug overdoses and used the medication to revive seven people. 

Two others died because no one found them in time.

At the beginning of May this year, police responded to 16 overdoses and revived six victims. Three more people were lost in drug-related deaths.

So Strish is stepping up his game.

His department teamed up with Project Bald Eagle to offer free doses of Naloxone to the general public last year.

He has also started visiting overdose victims.

"I tell them, next time, we might not get there in time," he said. "Or we might find you somewhere with dope on you and put you in jail. Or you could get caught in a major investigation. Outside of rehabilitation, their options are limited: death or arrest, with drug court, or state time."

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