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Local Police Chiefs: Despite Stats, Opioid Crisis Continues to Grow in the Valley

 

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The police chiefs of four communities appeared on The Paying Attention! Podcast to discuss the opioid and homeless crisis in the Merrimack Valley. From right to left are: Tom Duggan, Methuen Police Chief Joe Solomon, Haverhill Police Chief Alan DeNaro, Boxford Police Chief James Riter, and North Andover Police Chief Charles Gray. Paying Attention is recorded in front of a live studio audience at the Studio21 Podcast Cafe in Salem, NH.

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PART I of our Opioid Summit on The Paying Attention Podcast with Tom Duggan included the police chiefs from four different communities to discuss the opioid crisis and homelessness. Joining Duggan were; North Andover Chief Charles Gray, Haverhill Chief Alan DeNaro, Boxford Chief Jim Riter, and Methuen Chief Joe Solomon.
DUGGAN: You guys were here two years ago – what does the opioid crisis look like now as compared to two years ago?

NORTH ANDOVER CHIEF GRAY:

North Andover has about 20,000 people in 26 square miles. Two years ago we were mostly dealing with crimes that are secondary to the opioid crisis; shoplifting, car breaks, house breaks, to acquire the funds to go to city to get drugs. Now we are seeing more OUI drugs, a lot of times secondary crimes are larcenies.

But, from where we were two years ago, the trend is that we’re getting less reports of overdoses. But, we know it’s going up, because we talk to people on the streets and work with families. A lot of times they are getting Narcan from community outreach and they are getting their own Narcan from places like Walgreens. So, they’re not calling us anymore for the Narcan. We are seeing a reduction of the number of reported overdoses but, we know it’s going up.
I would say that the opioid crisis is still out of control.

We can send [addicts] to rehab but because of the new protective custody laws, we can send them to the hospital but once they get to the hospital they can sign themselves out. The only time you’re going to get someone clean is if they want it.

BOXFORD CHIEF RITER: I can speak to some of the Masconomet communities, we are seeing a dramatic drop in the number of the new acts but the age group we see is between 25 and 35, especially during the early part of the epidemic. We did have a fatal this spring from a woman who was in recovery at the time, but unfortunately she used again and she didn’t make it. She was about 23 or 24 years old. She got addicted in college, came back, was fighting addiction for a period of time, and then passed away. So, it’s out there but what we’re dealing with isn’t what the cities are dealing with.

We’re not getting that many calls anymore for services and we are not using the Narcan as much as we used to. We ‘ve found people who have addiction are no longer calling the police, they have a better understanding of how to use Narcan and what to do on their own so they’re not calling us.

HAVERHILL CHIEF DENARO: Compared to two years ago, it’s still a significant problem that we are facing.
As far as deaths, deaths are down because as you heard before Narcan is out in the community and it’s readily available, and it’s used quite frequently.

A lot of the addicts are now using places like McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Taco Bell and those types of places where they shoot up in the bathrooms because they know that if they overdose and they are by themselves, they’re going to be found quickly. This means they get a quicker response. There are some that will actually go into the hospital bathroom and tie their arm around the help cord, so if they pass out the cord will go off to a nurse and they will get the help right away. It’s a significant problem. We have doubled the amount of Narcan that goes out to our officers on the street because we are finding that one or two doses in a pack isn’t enough anymore. We are now seeing people take three and four doses because they are becoming resistant to it. So, we are having to carry more Narcan in the cars.

We have fewer overdoses in our stats because now people are self-medicating so, we are not getting the calls but it is still a significant problem. We are still making multiple arrests in Haverhill involving people from New Hampshire, Maine, and Lawrence; Lawrence being the delivery system to people in New Hampshire and Maine. But, they are coming to the four exit off route 495 in Haverhill because they feel like it’s safer in Haverhill than going straight to Lawrence to buy their drugs, but their connections are coming right out of Lawrence.

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DUGGAN: It seems like some of the crime is moving out of Lawrence and into your community. Is that true?

DENARO: Lawrence is six or seven square miles and they have about 150 police officers. I would need 150 more police officers if we wanted to do the same coverage by square miles. So, when you have that many officers in an area of six or seven square miles you can be much more responsive to addressing those problems. That, in and of itself, pushes some of it out of that community. So, yeah when the state police come in in wolf packs and address these issues [in Lawrence] and the sheriff’s office and other local and state agencies are coming to your community it will drive things to where there is less heat on them. But, when the crime moves out and comes toward us, eventually it moves back to Lawrence. They keep moving around. It’s the same thing with the gangs, they come in and out of half a dozen communities as they need to and they do go back-and-forth.

We have a regional approach though. We all meet on a regular basis. Our detectives talk daily with other agencies. In fact, the chiefs of [different] communities all got together with the mayors last week in Haverhill on gang related violence and issues related to the opioid crisis.

We talked about best practices and things that we are all doing differently in our community. We don’t always publicize them as much but we are doing them.

METHUEN CHIEF SOLOMON: I think the trends are totally different on the crime situations and the drug situation. So, for us we had about a 50% decrease in the amount of calls for services for opioids. We believe a lot of that is the availability of Narcan as the other chiefs have said. But, we have a lot of community engagement work that we’re doing, together with the other communities. So, what we are seeing on the opioid side, part of it is the great work everyone is doing to get education and treatment, long-term treatment. So we have gone down 43% in the calls for service, but a 50% increase in deaths. So, when I look at the numbers, some of the deaths are from people who have used before they go to bed and we find them deceased the next morning.

As Chief DeNaro said, we find them in public restrooms as well. We also see in 2017 we had 275 support calls from our community engagement specialists and clinicians. This year as of December 3rd, we had 429. So, it’s a 55% increase in the outreach and community engagement. But a lot of that is people coming to ask for help. We’ve already placed 158 people this year into treatment. I think the deaths are actually the anomaly. As for the crime issues, everyone here is impacted differently.

As Chief DeNaro has said and all the other departments here, we have multiple gang task force meetings. We all have different offices on our team, they’re working together with state probation, parole, federal probation and parole, the court system, the intake work, everybody is working together in order to attack this one large problem.

You can’t have a Methuen problem, a Haverhill problem, a Boxford problem. Their problems are our problems, although the impact is different. But it’s the same players and the same problems moving over the borders. I’m in between Lawrence and Haverhill and I’m impacted very differently in my community by the crime, as they are. Also, we are down officers. We only have 94 officers, while Haverhill has been hiring the last few years, and Lawrence has been hiring and if Methuen doesn’t [start] adding officers there is going to be a bigger impact on our citizens.

THE HOMELESS

DUGGAN: Have you guys seen a correlation between the increase in opioid use in the increase in homelessness?

SOLOMON: That’s been very difficult. We go out and do our count for the homeless but we do our count every November. So, we keep telling the feds that we have to do the count in the spring because, if you look at my count in November there’s almost nobody along the rail trail because they’ve all gone to shelters in Lawrence.

The count has to be in April or May so I can get a true count of my numbers for homelessness. But we do patrol the rail trail, our officers go out there on foot. They are out there constantly, particularly in the good weather. We interact with them again and again. If we have to get them help they have to go to Lawrence to get them into a shelter because we don’t have one in Methuen.

And that’s not fair to Lawrence either. All the homeless from all these communities go to one community, Lawrence. Each community does need to do their share in their own way, but nobody wants to take that step to have shelters in their communities. So they’re all going to Lawrence.

CHIEF GRAY: We had a camp down there [along the railroad tracks in Sutton St.] a few years ago. It was like a little village of homeless people. We went down and interacted with them. We did make a couple of arrests for people who had warrants, but we basically were there to ask them how can we help you? But, like Chief Solomon said, a lot of times they’re going into Lawrence, not just for the services but it puts them closer to the source of the drugs.

Because they are struggling with that addiction, if they’re in North Andover, it’s going to take them 40 minutes or an hour to walk to the city to get their drugs and use it. But if they are there already, underneath the railroad bridge, on Lowell Street in Lawrence they are right there. So, I think it’s a matter of convenience that they go to Lawrence and it’s not just for services.

CHIEF RITER: In our town we are not seeing the residual crime from the opioid crisis as much as the other communities. We had our first house break in two years about a month ago. But there’s nowhere close for them to buy drugs in Boxford. There’s not a lot of restaurants or big monster malls that bring people into Boxford. So, for anybody who doesn’t live in a house in our community there’s not much there in Boxford to attract them.

What we see is kids who grew up in Boxford who have issues, they are there for a short period of time and they move on. The same thing with families. If the economy turns, they don’t stay that long in Boxford, they move to another community. So, people come and go very quickly if they do have a downturn in their luck.

All of our guys are trained with Narcan, however, we probably used 10 doses over the last three or four years. We are having an opioid issue, but it’s not as many as the other communities and we are only seeing the legacy people. If you look at the high school kids, we saw the classes from 2011 to 2016 get really banged up on opioids right after high school. But then after 2016 it has really quieted down.

CHIEF DENARO: Opioid deaths, like any deaths, are always reported. But, just to go back to something that you hit on the head Tom, and you can do 100 shows on homelessness. One of the issues we have is, who do we deal with that are homeless? People who are struggling with alcohol abuse, drug abuse, mental health issues, yet we have a few locations [shelters] where we can take them to.

But, if they’ve had a problem there before they’re not allowed back. If they go in and they smell of booze, they’re not allowed in. If they leave early you’re suspended from there for three days. You can’t go back in.

The other problem is that people don’t like to see homelessness and what I mean by that is, there are certain places in Haverhill where the homeless will go in the parking deck to sleep, and people coming in and out for work will call us because they are afraid. So, we will get a call to get them out of there.

The problem we have is that if you’re homeless we can’t expect you to walk 24 hours a day. I can’t tell you, can’t sleep somewhere. You have to allow people an opportunity to sleep. Especially when they can’t get into a facility for whatever the reason is. Most of the facilities are filled up, especially in the winter when the weather goes under freezing.

Our officers will go out, and anybody who is on the street will be brought into the lobby of the police station. It’s not even an option, because we’ve had people freeze to death, we have found them dead behind dumpsters. So, we mandate they come in and sometimes we have half a dozen people sleeping in our lobby area until 7AM when the sun comes up.

Homelessness is one of the major issues that everybody from San Diego to Miami is dealing with, and nobody has solved it. Nobody anywhere in the country has solved it.

You have to remember especially with things like the opioid crisis, just like with gangs, the preventative things we are doing now, we are not going to see the benefits of those efforts for 8 to 10 years down the road.

It’s very difficult to determine if our prevention efforts are a success or not right now. We go out and we talk to the homeless. We talk to the people with opioid problems, and I can tell you from first-hand knowledge that we have met with families that have said ‘this is my son’s fifth or sixth time going into rehab’.

It’s not an issue of just getting them into rehab. Some of these families have literally gone bankrupt trying to save their loved one. It may take half a dozen times of going to rehab before they are successful. But the biggest part of the problem is, if we get to you and we get you squared away and you go right back to the same environment where you came from when you get out of rehab, what do you think is going to happen? They’re going right back to the drugs. That’s the challenge that we are facing.

CIVILIAN HELP FOR THE POLICE

CHIEF SOLOMON: Back in 2013 we started on a project. By 2015 we had two civilian clinicians full-time and we have tried for the last two years to get a full-time mental health counselor. We’ve done 420 intakes this year already just from the two civilian individuals who work for us. Prior to having the civilians, back in 2013 it was phone calls to my office where someone says ‘my kid overdosed, what do I do’?

I would spend a day, or a day and a half trying to figure out how to get that person help. But, when we brought in the civilians who are trained, they are literally sitting down right away to do the intake, make the phone calls and get them placement if they want to go. So, something that might take me a day and a half, might take them two hours. So we are making huge progress in that area.

DUGGAN: When someone walks into the Methuen police station right now with an addiction problem, what happens?

SOLOMON: They come in, walk up to the window and say they’re looking for some help. If one of our clinicians is working they will come right out to help them. If not, the officers will take them in and start the process to get them to the hospital, which is our first step. Then they’ll call one of our clinicians in. We’ve done a good job training officers. The officers can go right to the hospital and start the process.

But, I still think there’s a weak link here for us getting people to the hospital. We’re much better off than we were two years ago, but we’ve got to change the law on the 72 hour hold because after that 72 hours they can sign themselves out and then where are they going? They go right back to the drugs and we have to deploy Narcan again and start the process over.

I think when we do the Narcan, that needs to be more than a 72-hour hold. They have to go in for a minimum of 30 days for treatment and not be released until the doctor says so.

Senator DiZoglio has been amazing in this fight. We’ve all been to the State House to testify on the bills that she has put up on her committee. She is not only a fighter for the addiction problem, but also with the homeless and the mental health issues. With her guidance and her assistance I’m sure this is going to continue to move things forward on that issue but it’s going to take time.

I know people don’t want civil liberties taken away from them but we have to save these lives. We are much better off now than we were two or three years ago but we’re nowhere near where we need to be. ◊

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan

Tom Duggan is president and publisher of The Valley Patriot Newspaper in North Andover, Massachusetts. He is an author, host of the Paying Attention TV/Radio Program, lectures on media bias and police issues, is a former Lawrence School Committeeman, former political director for Mass. Citizens Alliance, and a 1990 Police Survivor. You can email your comments to valleypatriot@aol.com.

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