Police Department Should Assist, not Arrest, Addicts

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The city of Amherst Police Department is the latest law enforcement agency to adopt a treatment-focused approach to low-level drug offences. As reported by the Oberlin News Tribune on April 8, Amherst Police Chief Joe Kucirek has instituted an informal policy whereby addicts who turn themselves in will be diverted to local rehabilitation programs rather than arrested on-scene (“Arrest or treat? Police say addicts need help,” Evan Goodenow). Though this is undoubtedly a valuable step toward becoming a community that values support over criminalization, it does not fully realize the opportunity to institutionalize a treatment-focused agenda. Indeed, a more formal policy step would be to join the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a nonprofit begun by police in Gloucester, MA, in 2015 to connect addicts and officers with overdose remedies and treatment centers. Five other Ohio police departments are already members of PAARI.

Along with the rest of the Rust Belt, Lorain County has historically struggled with addiction. In 2015, the Oberlin police department made 43 drug-related arrests: 36 adults and 7 juveniles, with four of those involving heroin and eight narcotics equipment. The OPD have not yet adopted a treatment-before-arrest policy. However, as Oberlin Police Chief Juan Torres explained, “If anyone comes into the police station with drugs in their possession, [arrest] is up to the discretion of the officer — the amount of drugs, type of drug and whether or not that person is wanted. We have already begun a conversation with the management team on this policy. We are aware this is happening in all of the jurisdictions. We are already talking about this. We are open to anything.”

This is a step in the right direction for police departments whose aim is reform by way of helping, rather than punishing, the communities they are supposed to protect. Arresting or detaining addicts often perpetuates the cycle of addiction. PAARI’s goal is for the national conversation to turn toward prevention and treatment of addiction rather than the crime. Criminalizing drug use harms the victims of drug addiction rather than the dealers or traffickers. Additionally, low-income addicts and people of color, specifically Black and Latino men, are disproportionately charged with drug crimes relative to their white and affluent peers. According to the NAACP, Black men represent 12 percent of the total population of drug users, yet represent 59 percent of the population in state prison for a drug offense.

However, whether or not their local police departments are willing to work toward a more sustainable and equitable method of treatment, rural communities must take it upon themselves to prioritize the accessibility of treatment in their respective spaces. With only four treatment centers and four addict-specific hotlines or support centers serving a population of 300,000, Lorain County must do its part to help addicts recover before they are sucked into a preventable, vicious cycle that may culminate in legal trouble or death.

“There are many considerations we need to take into account: officer safety [and the fact that] our department is attached to City Hall and the court,” Torres said. “There are many public citizens who come into account. It would take a lot of planning. But anyone who wants help, we are more than happy to help.” Moving forward, the Oberlin police department needs to act on these words. The OPD should strongly consider officially joining PAARI or implementing a formal treatment-first program, taking into consideration the supportive capacity of the department. Look to the models of Gloucester, MA, Baltimore, MD and Cooperstown, NY. Reach out to community leaders for support and to rehabilitation centers for partnership. There is a myriad of models to choose from as more and more small towns and rural counties formally commit to supporting, rather than incarcerating, their citizenry. Lorain County has the opportunity to become the next in a series of communities prioritizing the destigmatization and treatment of addiction.

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