Conn. police join a growing trend of offering addicts treatment over jail

Using grant monies, the Vernon Police Department is connecting addicts with recovery coaches and moving them into treatment rather than jail


By David Owens
The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. — When Vernon police Chief James Kenny saw how police in neighboring Manchester were offering treatment rather than arresting people who possessed small quantities of opiates, he was intrigued. As a veteran cop with experience in narcotics enforcement, Kenny kept seeing addicts get arrested but not getting the help they need.

Kenny knew the old model of simply arresting anyone who possessed drugs was not working, a realization that police departments across Connecticut and the nation are coming to as addiction deaths continue to grow.

“I was very impressed with it, and I tried to steal it,” Kenny said of what is known as the HOPE program in Manchester. “The enforcement angle of this is not working. We are seeing more and more overdoses, especially associated with heroin and fentanyl.”

Kenny wanted Vernon officers to have the option to offer treatment rather than jail that their colleagues in Manchester, New Britain, Berlin and dozens of other communities across the state and nation had. But money was an issue. The key to the program, and those like it, is immediate help for people suffering from addiction. It was available at Manchester Memorial Hospital, but not at Rockville General Hospital in Vernon.

That changed Aug. 1, thanks to a grant from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Recovery coaches are now on call at Rockville General Hospital to provide immediate assistance, and followup help, to people suffering from addiction.

Three people sought help the first week, Kenny said.

“If the people we’re dealing with are interested in recovery or getting help with their addiction, we will not arrest them for simple possession of narcotics,” Kenny said. Police will seize any drugs they have, though.

Police will continue to arrest people with larger quantities of drugs and people they suspect of dealing, said Lt. Bill Meier. But for those who want help, “it’s just one more tool the officers have to address the problem.”

“It’s not going to work for everybody,” Kenny said. “A lot of people we deal with aren’t interested until they hit rock bottom.” Police have had instances of dealing with the same addict multiple times in the same day, reviving them with Narcan, then returning later in the day for another overdose, he said. Narcan is a drug used to revive people have overdosed on opioids.

A town hit hard by opioid crisis

Vernon’s program is modeled after a program pioneered by police in Gloucester, Mass., and is intended to move addicts into treatment rather than jail before they cause more harm to themselves, their families and their community. As a result, the number of overdoses has declined, and larceny and other crimes associated with drug abusers have dropped.

Meier said Vernon and Rockville have been hard-hit by the opioid crisis. “We’ve seen more suspected overdose deaths in the first six months of this year than we did in all of 2018,” Meier said. “Some of the national data is showing it’s starting to level off, but we have not seen that locally.” There were six overdose deaths in Vernon in 2017 and 2018 and that many already in 2019, Meier said.

The key to the program is the immediate availability of help, Meier said.

“They go right now, immediately they’re in,” Meier said. “I can’t overstate that. It’s immediate."

Dr. Robert Carroll, the head of emergency medicine at Manchester Memorial and Rockville General, said the old way was to care for a patient in the emergency room, then give them some phone numbers to seek help and send them on their way.

“That doesn’t really work well with an addict,” Carroll said. Hours after they leave the hospital, they begin to feel the pain of withdrawal. “The magic cure is to pop another Oxycontin, shoot another bag of heroin,” he said.

If the hospital keeps them long enough to speak with a recovery coach, there’s a better chance of getting them into treatment. The work of recovery coaches in the emergency room at Manchester Memorial has led to a higher percentage of patients initiating treatment.

The recovery coaches are people who are in recovery themselves, who understand the difficulty patients face, but who also have been trained to help people who want help and who have the information and ability to get them help. Some will drive patients to clinics. They stay in touch with patients.

“The recovery coaches are really good at relating to the patients with the substance use disorders because they’ve been there,” Carroll said. “They are probably the secret sauce of why this is successful.”

The recovery coaches at Rockville General and more than a dozen other hospitals across the state are from the Hartford-based Connecticut Community of Addiction Recovery. The recovery coaches provide help during and after the emergency department visit and connect people to community resources, including substance abuse treatment.

Helping addicts find a connection

TJ Aitken knows addiction and recovery. He’s been sober a little over three years and is one of the recovery coaches from CCAR who travel all across the state to talk to people suffering from addiction and help them if they’re ready to seek recovery. The job has given the 25-year-old Manchester native a purpose and helped him stay away from alcohol and heroin.

“Recovery coaching has done for me what I couldn’t do for myself,” he said. “They’ve helped me more than I’ll ever help them.”

Aitken is full of energy and a desire to be where he is needed, whenever he is needed.

“I work both nights and weekends, days, afternoons,” he said. “I go with the flow.”

After a brief meeting in Rockville on Friday, he was headed to Norwich to talk to a woman at Backus Hospital who was seeking help with her alcohol addiction.

He walks into the emergency room, sits down with people who are struggling and introduces himself. He doesn’t push. He tries to make a connection with the person he’s trying to help.

“Connection is the way out of addiction,” he said. “Connection is the most important thing a recovery coach can provide to someone who wants to get into recovery.”

When he talks to people, he looks for a light in their eye, something they want to achieve. Sometimes it isn’t there right away, but that doesn’t bother Aitken.

“I always follow up with everybody,” he said. They might not be ready when he meets them, but a month later they might be. He said he’ll always help.

Aitken said he has helped 799 people into recovery during his nearly two years as a recovery coach. He was hoping the woman in Norwich would be No. 800.

The apparent success of the recovery coach program has prompted the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to seek to expand it. Federal grants are providing the funding now.

“It’s a great program,” said Diana Shaw, a department spokeswoman. “It really has been valuable in getting people to treatment at a time they’re really vulnerable and really need it most. We’re hoping to expand it as more money becomes available.”

Police know that not everyone they take to the hospital will accept help and enter recovery.

“Sometimes they’re at rock bottom and they want help, and this help might keep them alive,” Vernon’s Kenny said. “We’re not naive enough to believe that we can save everyone we bring to the hospital with this program, but if we can save one, it’s a success.”

©2019 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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