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Amid opiate epidemic in Erie County, ‘angels’ train to help addicts

Cops rarely deal with addicts unless they observe a drug deal or catch someone shooting up in a car or public restroom. In either case, the user would likely wind up arrested and in jail.

But now, 13 police departments across the region have opened their doors to addicts who want to stop using drugs through a program called Rapid Evaluation for Appropriate Placement, or REAP.

REAP eases addicts into a treatment program. But the addict must go to a police station, request help and wait for placement.

They won’t be arrested – even if police search them and find drugs and paraphernalia.

To help them through the process, an “angel” will be there.

With the number of fatal overdoses in the county doubling every year, law enforcement and health officials hope that this new method will encourage more people to seek help before it’s too late.

REAP is in its infancy, 6 weeks old, with training sessions ongoing. So far, 77 people have been trained as angels; however, few have received a call for service.

Gemma M. Zotara, a retiree of Amherst, is anxious for such a call. She signed up to be an angel after two friends from high school each lost a son to opiate addiction.

“Everyone goes for the heroin,” Zotara said. “Going to those wakes and funerals is a wake-up call for anyone. It hit home with me. I just think it’s important to know what’s going on out there.”

Colleen A. VanAernam, 60, of West Seneca, knows from experience that the time between when an addict decides to seek help and actually gets into a treatment facility is a critical window.

“When people are finally ready to seek treatment – even waiting for transportation to a facility – during the couple of hours they’re waiting, they may change their minds,” VanAernam said. “It’s my job to distract them, talk to them. It’s just one more way for me to help.”

Reluctant to seek help

Admissions to opiate treatment programs in Erie County numbered 4,301 in 2015, up from 3,926 in 2014 and from 3,511 in 2013, according to the county’s Health Department. Last year marked the first time that the number exceeded the amount of people seeking treatment for alcoholism.

The success of REAP depends on the willingness of community members to volunteer. The response in Western New York has been overwhelming, according to county officials. Many of the volunteers have experienced friends or loved ones falling into opiate addiction.

“This is an epidemic evolving every day,” said Cheryll M. Moore, medical care administrator at the county Health Department. “We are getting to the point where we know this is a disease. Opiate addiction requires medical treatment. It’s amazing. I’m very impressed with the community and how they stepped up to take care of each other.”

When does a war on drugs become a war on addiction?

When police do not arrest the addicts for drug possession, said Orchard Park Assistant Police Chief E. Joseph Wehrfritz.

“Most people don’t ask for help unless they are at wit’s end,” Wehrfritz said as he delivered some training tips to about 50 angel volunteers who filled a conference room at the county Emergency Services Training and Operations Center in Cheektowaga.

“This is a voluntary program. They have the right to walk. Don’t go grabbing their arms and asking them to stay. Use your judgment about sharing your personal experience. Don’t create an expectation of long-term conduct.”

Wehrfritz is standing before a group of angels in training. Many of them have lost loved ones to the opiate epidemic.

Paul Calmes’ son, Jacob, took his life in March at age 21. Jacob was 13 when he started smoking marijuana. He started on harder drugs in the last three years of his life, his father said. Calmes, of South Buffalo, volunteered for the program to help addicts get the treatment they need to quit – no matter how many times it takes them.

“They need to be able to walk into a place and get admitted,” Calmes said. “The expense of that is astronomical. Who using drugs is going to go to the police? The addicts have families. They are real people. My son was immensely smart and talented. The shock and the effect of his death is raw.”

Using model program

Gloucester, Mass., is a fishing town of 28,000 and was the setting for the George Clooney movie “The Perfect Storm.” It is also the birthplace of the Police Assisted Addiction Response Initiative, or PAARI, the addiction-response model that many police agencies, including Buffalo, have used. It reflects the growing understanding among law enforcers that getting treatment for addicts deters more crime than jailing them.

Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello posted the initiative in May 2015 on his agency’s Facebook page after the city registered four opiate overdoses in three months. Gloucester was also feeling the sting of petit larceny. After the program started, police recorded a 33 percent decrease in property crimes.

The response across the nation was almost immediate as law enforcers lined up for a visit from the chief.

The Buffalo Police Department hosted Campanello in June when he addressed about 200 law enforcement officials, said Lt. Jeffrey D. Rinaldo, who vets angel applicants with Rene L. Granda, report technician.

“You hear horror stories about people seeking treatment,” Rinaldo said. “This will immediately link someone with some kind of service. When an addict seeks help at a police station, the officer calls Crisis Services and hands the phone to the addict.”

From the 95 applicants who applied, 77 completed angel training, Rinaldo said.

“Our version is an adaptation of the PAARI model,” said Lt. Thomas P. Gerace of the Cheektowaga Police Department’s Vice, Gambling and Narcotics Unit. Under the Campanello model, a police officer would call the treatment center. In our model the officer calls Crisis Services who interviews the addict and determines treatment options.

“Twenty percent of addicts are in treatment at a given time,” said Paul F. Updike, medical director of STAR program for Catholic Health. “In a lot of instances people need to attend multiple treatment programs before they quit. It’s difficult for people to find their way.”

Meanwhile, Calmes, Zotara and VanAernam wait for a call.

“It takes time,” Calmes said. “I think people have a fear of walking into the police station with drugs who are addicted to drugs. It truly is a disease and people have to realize that and not look down on people who are addicts.”


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