Ilinois Towns Try Treatment Instead of Jail for Heroin Addicts
By John Keilman
Katelynn Lahman had just fired a shot of heroin into her arm when she decided to call her hometown's chief of police.
Lahman, 20, had been on heroin for nine months, funding her habit with petty crimes. She finally decided to seek help, she said, but was unable to find a place that would take her.
"(The police chief) was like, 'What if I tell you I can get you into a detox tomorrow morning?'" Lahman recalled. "I said, 'OK, that's fine.' So literally, 8 o'clock in the morning, I go to detox because (police) show up."
So began this small town's radical reimagining of how police can best fight the growing scourge of heroin addiction. Following a model created in Gloucester, Mass., Dixon cops fast-track a user into treatment if he or she comes to them asking for help. They'll even dispose of the person's drugs or paraphernalia without pressing charges for possession. The idea is quickly catching on among departments in the Chicago area.
Rolling Meadows police introduced a similar program earlier this month, and other suburbs plan to roll out their own versions soon. So far about two dozen people in Dixon and surrounding Lee County have taken the offer since late August. Police Chief Danny Langloss said the results have been mixed, and that he expects many of those who enter treatment with the help of police to relapse.
But he said that won't affect his department's willingness to continue to help those in the grip of addiction.
"They're a person," he said. "They just need help. And what we've done for years hasn't helped."
Dixon, a city of 15,000 about 100 miles west of downtown Chicago, is best known as Ronald Reagan's boyhood home or, more recently, as the town fleeced for $54 million by its former comptroller, Rita Crundwell. But like many small communities, it is dealing with an escalating heroin crisis as the widespread abuse of prescription painkillers has led some to seek a cheaper and even more powerful opiate.
The problem in Dixon reached a dreadful peak in February, when three people died of overdoses within two weeks. Residents and government officials met to devise a response, which included a well-attended public forum on heroin, a hotline for people seeking treatment and sessions to train people in the use of naloxone, an overdose-stopping medication.
But the boldest step came when Langloss and Lee County Sheriff John Simonton decided it was time for law enforcement to try an approach developed by Gloucester police Chief Leonard Campanello. He announced in May that people who brought their drugs and needles to the police station and asked for help would immediately be ushered into treatment at a local rehab facility.
Since then, Campanello says, 260 people have gone through the program, and property crimes have gone down significantly.
"This is not something we can arrest our way out of," he said. "Addiction is not a crime, it's a disease, and police can be a voice to facilitate treatment for people who are suffering."
The idea has spread rapidly on the East Coast, but Dixon and Lee County appear to be Illinois' first adopters. Their program works like this:
An addict who comes to the police station asking for help can turn in his or her drugs and paraphernalia without being charged. Police then call volunteers -- some former drug users themselves -- known as Safe Passage guides, and those volunteers come to the station to help explain the program and fill out an intake form.
Once that's done, two volunteers drive the addict to one of several rehab facilities that have agreed to give priority to people coming from Dixon and Lee County. The entire process takes as little as two hours, compared with wait times that often last for months for uninsured people trying to get into treatment on their own.
Alison White, 25, is one of those Safe Passage guides. Clean for four years from a prodigious crack and heroin habit, she said she understands the fear and wariness of those reaching out for help and often answers questions on the ride to rehab.
"The biggest thing I've seen change is that addicts are seeing someone cares about them," she said. "They feel they've burned every bridge, no one cares. The cops are starting to care, and that's a strange thing. It's a strange thing for me, too."
The offer isn't open to people who have been freshly arrested -- the theory is that those who seek help on their own will be more likely to succeed in treatment -- and it doesn't erase any warrants or pending charges an addict might have.
Simonton, though, said prosecutors are willing to postpone the courtroom reckoning until after the person has completed treatment. And should the person relapse, he said, the authorities are happy to lend a hand once more.
"We've had it happen," he said. "We realized going into it that we were not going to have that success rate the first time through. We're understanding of that to an extent. If they still have the drive and the willpower, we'll help them through it."
Neither Dixon nor Lee County pays for an addict's stay in treatment, leaving that to private insurance, state funds or Medicaid. Rehab centers also sometimes pick up the cost.
Yet as more departments adopt similar programs, Langloss worries that the state's treatment capacity won't be able to meet the demand. Mary A. Petersen of the Unity Point Health Robert Young Center in Rock Island, which has accepted seven patients from Dixon, said police and rehab centers will need to team up to lobby state and federal officials for more money.
"There are woeful gaps in funding for these individuals, and it does burden centers," she said. " ... It's much more cost-effective (to treat addicts) than for the government to incarcerate them and not treat the cause."
Other models, though, are less elaborate than Dixon's. Rolling Meadows police this month started guiding addicts to services already offered in town, including a methadone clinic and a Salvation Army rehab center. A medical marijuana dispensary has also promised to provide funding to help those struggling with cannabis abuse.
Police Chief David Scanlan said three people have entered the program since it began a few weeks ago, but he hopes that even small numbers will make a big difference on the street.
"Because these people have a tendency to become one-man crime waves, we can reduce some of the property crime we see in some of our neighborhoods by getting them into treatment," he said.
It's too early to gauge how Dixon's program has affected its crime rate, or even to predict the long-term success of its participants. But Katelynn Lahman said the Police Department's intervention has clearly set her on a better path, even if it has been a bumpy one.
She walked out of the first detox center she went to, upset that she wasn't allowed to smoke. But Langloss drove there to pick her up and quickly found her another facility. She later attended a residential center in Florida that agreed to pay for her treatment.
Lahman returned to Dixon in early October and has worked vigilantly on her sobriety, attending 12-step meetings and enrolling in an intensive outpatient program. Her mother, Kathy Ketchum, said while there's still tension around the house, her daughter appears to have made great strides in her recovery.
"I'm very grateful for this program," she said. "If it weren't for this, the only option I would have had was to wait for the phone call to get the pine box."
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