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How the opioid boom transformed policing: we're not just making arrests — we're caretakers

A police captain describes battling the opioid epidemic on the front lines.

Heroin is prepared for intravenous use in Vermont in 2014.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There was the mom that overdosed in her car, her kids still sitting in the back when the police arrived. Or the home where the officers arrived on the scene to find an elderly parent left without anyone to care for them after their son overdosed.

Sometimes, officers walk into a situation where an overdose turns into a death. They are left dealing with the grieving, sometimes hostile family members who are coping with the passing of a loved one in real time.

I’m a police captain in Chillicothe, Ohio, a town of about 20,000 located an hour south of Columbus. The heroin epidemic is unlike any addiction boom I’ve ever seen. Overdoses are an almost daily occurrence, typically racking up between two to five a week. Then, there are days where nine or 10 people overdose.

Our officers — increasingly forced to take on the role of nurse, social worker, or caretaker as overdoses sweep our city — are struggling to adapt. Some feel like they entered the force to solve crimes or make arrests, not handle family arrangements at the scene of a heroin-related death. But as budgets in mental health and addiction services in Chillicothe are slashed, casualties of the heroin epidemic continue to pile up. Our community has a problem, and as police, our duty is to problem solve, first and foremost.

In my 21 years of policing, I’ve never seen anything this bad

I’ve lived in Ohio my whole life. I moved to Chillicothe 27 years ago and joined the local police department six years after that. At that time, I was coming out of the Marine corps and looking for a job that could give me a similar sense of camaraderie. I liked helping people, and I liked working with a team toward a goal, so police work seemed like a good path for me.

I started out doing front-line police work, everything from writing up traffic tickets to dealing with homicide cases. Once I took on the role of sergeant, I moved on to more of a supervising role for our team of patrol officers. Even though I was out in the field less, the role gave me much more of a bird’s-eye sense of what our officers were dealing with day to day.

In my decades of police work in Chillicothe, I’ve seen drug crazes come and go. I was there during the crack epidemic in the ’90s. It felt like a visible drug problem — as a police officer, you could easily tell when someone was abusing crack because the drug made them act restless and aggressive. The crack wave came with an uptick in violent crime and arrests.

After that was the pill boom. Prescription drugs were everywhere, sold out of “pill mills” where get-rich-quick doctors or pharmacies sell large quantities of Oxycontin or Xanax for no legitimate medical reason. The pill boom was much harder to combat because many abusers had actual prescriptions for painkillers. There was nothing to stop them, legally, from walking around with bottles of powerful opioid pills in their pockets.

But this heroin craze, which feels like the next phase after the opioid pill mill boom, feels like a much bigger, much more tragic problem. Calls to the police about overdoses and deaths are 10 times the amount of any other drug crazes we’ve seen. Sometimes a bad batch of heroin, something laced with fentanyl or some other poison, will come into town and we’ll be fielding nine or 10 overdose calls in one day. Property crimes are up. Theft is up. Everybody’s doing what they can to feed their habit.

It’s also a much more invisible addiction compared to drug booms of the past. People are shooting up in the privacy of their homes or cars. There’s no dominant demographic. Everyone seems to be doing it: rich, poor, high schoolers, moms and dads, grandparents in their 70s. And nobody is talking about it. People are silent about their addiction or an addiction in their family — until it’s too late.

It’s an adjustment from arresting people to being their caretaker

In the past four or five years as the heroin epidemic has hit Chillicothe, police officers have seen their role in the community shift. For them, their duty has shifted away from arrests or fighting crime and toward acting as a social worker or caretaker to people struggling with addiction. It’s certainly different than what many police officers had gone into the force thinking they would be doing.

Nowadays, police officers are tasked with recognizing the signs of an overdose and doing what they can to provide immediate medical assistance. Sometimes it feels like working at a hospital. I’ll arrive on the scene with officers and we’ll have to ask questions and examine symptoms to determine if it’s a heroin overdose or some other drug. Then we’ll have to administer Narcan, an opiate overdose antidote administered through the nose. We then provide CPR and keep them alive until an ambulance comes. We have to do all of this while keeping oftentimes hysterical family members calm.

There’s also the emotional element. We have to be an information resource for people dealing with addiction, handing out pamphlets and directing them to addiction centers. Oftentimes, we are the only other people present when someone passes away, and have to handle grieving family. Sometimes these are young children who are witnessing their parents die. We have to ask ourselves: Should we drop these kids off at their grandparents’ house, or are their grandparents addicted to heroin too? It’s a problem that has penetrated all levels of our community, and the police are on the front lines.

It can be really tough on our officers. Many of them worry that they aren’t administering the Narcan correctly, or don’t know how to handle a potentially hostile situation when an overdose or death occurs. When faced with such a deep problem continually, the officers wonder what they can do to fix it. Are there suppliers they can be arresting? What can they really do to help, other than respond to multiple overdose calls? It’s a high-stress environment, and it’s taking its toll.

Sometimes the officers grumble about it. They say, I’m not a social worker. This isn’t what I signed up to do. They didn’t envision this reality when they decided to join the police force.

But I tell them: Right now, this is the job.

Better training is the answer

Oftentimes, through training on how to handle the heroin problem, officers are able to get over that initial hump of discomfort on this aspect of the job. Once they gain a better understanding of why it’s so important for them to learn how to administer Narcan or recognize the signs of overdose, they’re much more comfortable with their duties.

I also tell them that part of the reason they need to take on this role is because there are fewer and fewer people able to do it. Budget cuts have hit the social services sector in Chillicothe. It means there are fewer people working to get these addicts to centers where they can receive treatment. It falls on us, as police officers, to fill that role.

Luckily, we’re slowly getting a better grip on how best to handle this sweeping problem. We’re working alongside local nonprofits and social services centers. They’re helping us get trained up on what to do. The drug courts are moving away from jail time for addicts and toward treatment sentences. We’re slowly learning how to get better at this.

In a lot of ways, this shift toward social services has been a shift back to how I remember the old days of policing. A couple decades ago when I first entered the force, the emphasis was all about community policing. We were problem solvers first and foremost, and part of that involved some degree of social work.

As time went on, I saw a shift in priorities. Policing became less about getting people help. The focus became more on reactive, call-to-call arrests and jail time and less on problem solving. That social work element wasn’t as important, and I think a lot of our officers have sort of forgotten how to do that side of the job.

Now, things are changing in Chillicothe. The police are becoming more focused on getting people help. It’s what the community needs right now, and our officers understand that.

Battling the opioid epidemic continues to be a hot-button political topic. Recent government-funded plans to handle the issue are a step in the right direction, but they need to focus on long-term treatment of addiction as well as prevention. There also cannot be further mental health and substance abuse budget cuts. Many drug abusers have underlying mental illnesses that only compound addiction. These services are at the forefront of the battle.

I hope, as this drug epidemic continues to wreak havoc in our community, that our police force can help make a difference.

— as told to Karen Turner

Ron Meyers is the recently promoted administrative captain for the Chillicothe Police Department. Prior to that he was front-line patrol sergeant. He has been on the department since 1996, and is a veteran of the US Marine Corps. Follow the Chillicothe Police Department on Facebook or Twitter.

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