Ohio police join users in fight against heroin

Dan Sewell
Associated Press

Cincinnati — Forehead furrowed, a woman drags on a cigarette, admitting she has only vague memories of nearly dying five days earlier.

Some flashes of images of being inside an ambulance. Waking up in a hospital bed. No recognition, though, of the solidly built, 6-foot-4 blue-uniformed police officer now leaning against a wall in her kitchen, having returned not to arrest her, but to help with her battle against heroin.

The officer, David Hubbard, a veteran narcotics detective, is part of the “Quick Response Team” formed last July in Colerain Township, a sprawling suburb of some 60,000 people 15 miles northwest of Cincinnati. Police, paramedics and addiction counselors combine to quickly steer users into treatment while their overdoses are still raw and frightening.

It’s among new approaches, some that are redefining police roles, being tried in hard-hit communities across the country. While some critics ask whether police are putting social work over law enforcement, authorities say that while they are stepping up efforts against dealers, they can’t arrest their way out of such a pervasive epidemic.

“There were some naysayers who say these are nothing but junkies — lock them up,” said John Tharp, sheriff in Lucas County, home to Toledo, Ohio’s fourth-largest city. “We may think this is soft (for police), but when you have a crisis in your community, you need to be proactive. We’re being aggressive.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports heroin overdose death rates more than tripled since 2010 as powerful, cheap forms swept America. Ohio ranked among the top five states in drug overdose deaths in 2014, including 1,177 linked to heroin, and had one of the biggest increases.

In Massachusetts, Gloucester’s police chief famously pioneered a program last year to help get addicts into treatment if they turn in their drugs and drug equipment, no questions asked. Departments in other states have adopted aspects of the program.

Tharp’s Drug Abuse Response Team (D.A.R.T.) was formed in June 2014 amid rising overdose deaths in the Toledo area. Police, accompanied by counselors, meet with users and families as soon as possible after overdoses, even providing rides to treatment. Hundreds have entered treatment through the effort.

In Colerain Township, Public Safety Director Dan Meloy said the program launched last July appears to be having an impact already. On pace to top 200 overdoses when it started, the township ended 2015 with 167.

The programs help reduce other crimes, police say.

“They’re not breaking into their neighbors’ sheds, they’re not robbing the local stores, they’re not stealing from their families trying to feed their habit,” Meloy said.

Some black Americans point out that gentler responses to the heroin use rising sharply among whites weren’t so available when the crack cocaine wave swept into urban neighborhoods.