Seven more local police departments now offer treatment assistance to anyone who walks into a local station and asks for help breaking their drug addiction.
Erie County is believed to be the largest community in the country where a majority of police departments have agreed to help provide treatment instead of punish those once written off as lawbreakers and junkies, county health officials said.
Yet few people are taking advantage of the offer. Organizers know of only two so far.
With a total of 13 local police departments now participating in the Erie County-run program – including the City of Niagara Falls – law enforcement organizers hope better marketing and outreach will help police become a key link in dealing with an opioid drug epidemic linked to 250 Erie County deaths so far this year.
“This is just the cops stepping up to the plate to do the right thing to help,” said Daniel Rinaldo, a federal drug intelligence officer who heads the law enforcement component of the Erie County Opiate Epidemic Task Force.
Six police departments spearheaded the program at the start of August: the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and East Aurora. Seven more have stepped up beginning in September: the towns of Cheektowaga, Evans, Hamburg, Lancaster and Orchard Park, as well as the Village of Depew and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.
Police stations in these communities offer assistance to walk-ins from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
To date, Rinaldo said, one person has walked into a station in Amherst and one has walked into an NFTA station at Main and East Utica streets in Buffalo. The NFTA station wasn’t even supposed to be providing assistance until this month, but helped the individual anyway, Rinaldo said.
“We anticipated much, much more,” he said.
Why so few
Both Rinaldo and Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein pointed to several reasons why more people have not turned to police for help:
• In August, Erie County Crisis Services simultaneously launched its 24-hour Addiction Line, (716) 831-7007, which connects addicts and their loved ones with information, resources and an immediate link to treatment.
“People are bypassing the police department because they are calling the Crisis Services hotline themselves,” Rinaldo said.
Though the Erie County REAP program – Rapid Evaluation for Appropriate Placement – is based on a police station assistance model in Gloucester, Mass., that community did not have a hotline number to connect addicts to help the way Erie County does.
• People addicted to illegal drugs are naturally reluctant to view police as anything other than law enforcers who arrest drug offenders, not people who link them to treatment.
“It’s a huge change in mindset for people who are using illicit substances,” Burstein said.
The issue of trust is further muddled because not all Erie County police departments have agreed to participate in the REAP program, she said, though some nonparticipating departments are expected to join in the future. Those with addictions are unlikely to know which police departments will offer them help, and which won’t.
Police departments in West Seneca, Kenmore, and the cities of Tonawanda and Lackawanna are not currently program participants, a Buffalo News review of the program found.
• Aside from press coverage and word of mouth, almost no outreach, marketing or advertising has been done to promote the new program within the population of drug users the county is most trying to reach, Rinaldo said. Even participating police stations post no public signs or information stating that addicts who come to them can receive help.
That could change in the future as county task force members look to find more ways to create greater awareness, Rinaldo said.
The 24-hour Crisis Services Addiction Line, launched with Erie County government support, continues to receive a stream of calls after an initial spike at the start of August. As of Tuesday morning, the hotline had received 453 calls, said Executive Director Jessica Pirro.
She estimated that slightly more than half of all callers were those suffering from addiction who wanted immediate access to treatment. The rest of the calls came from family members and friends seeking assistance for someone they know, she said.
Police Departments participating in REAP also place calls to the Addiction Line on behalf of drug users who come to them seeking help.
Mondays tend to be the busiest hotline days, with some people apparently realizing over the weekend that they need outside help, Pirro said.
The main benefit of the hotline is the ability to connect addicts with immediate treatment options. Community volunteers also meet with the addicts seeking treatment and keep them company until they can be further evaluated and provided either inpatient or outpatient treatment. The volunteers, called “angels,” play a key role in supporting those struggling with heroin and opioid addiction from the moment they make the call for help. They are available to meet with addicts at police stations and treatment centers on a moment’s notice.
Prior to the launch of the Addiction Line, some expressed concern that local treatment providers could not meet inpatient treatment demands. But Pirro said that in the worst cases, someone needing inpatient treatment had to wait a couple days before getting a bed.
Last week, she said, 19 individuals who called the hotline were referred for treatment. Of that number, 13 showed up for more extensive evaluation and were immediately linked to services.
Hotline staffing remains an issue. Crisis Services is still in need of a full-time Addiction Line supervisor with masters level certification in alcohol and substance, Pirro said.
The Addiction Line has received a smaller number of weekly calls since its initial launch, Pirro said. But she expects hotline use to grow with improved marketing and more referrals from area police.
“We will anticipate that these numbers will increase,” she said. “We’re getting there.”