Erie County's top health official is defending the program that lets the public drop off unwanted medications at local police agencies following accusations that two Town of Tonawanda paramedics improperly took drugs from the containers.
The investigation into the Tonawanda paramedics comes two months after the former Kenmore police chief admitted taking pills from a medication drop box at village Police Headquarters.
The recent incidents raise questions about the operation of the state's medication drop-off program, but Dr. Gale R. Burstein, the county's health commissioner, said the program is removing tons of painkillers and other potentially dangerous medication from local homes.
"This is really the cleanest, safest way to dispose of these unwanted pharmaceuticals," she said.
Burstein said the initiative functions well overall and the handful of emergency responders accused of pilfering the medication are isolated cases.
Another booster of the state program is Kenmore's new police chief, T.J. Phillips, who said the department has made changes to better secure the process of collecting and destroying the drugs after the arrest of his predecessor.
"We want to participate with the state in the program. We don't want to terminate it," Phillips said. "It's providing a service to the community."
Local police agencies have taken part in the state Health Department's safe disposal program since at least 2013. The Erie County Health Department works closely with the state on the initiative.
There are at least 27 locations in Western New York, although the rural counties just have one or two sites and Cattaraugus and Orleans counties have none.
Members of the public are invited to turn in prescription and over-the-counter medications, along with their packaging. Needles and syringes should be placed in separate sharp object boxes.
When the boxes are full, officers remove the drugs and hand them over to a company that burns them to create energy. Burstein said the program removes about 1 ton of medication from Erie County households each month.
It's important this no-longer-needed medication is kept away from children and seniors who could take it by mistake, she said. And it's better than flushing pills down the toilet because it keeps the medication out of the water supply, Burstein added.
The state Health Department issues guidelines for how law enforcement agencies should supervise their drop boxes. "Other police departments have not found this to be a problem," Burstein said.
Tonawanda police said Monday that two paramedics were suspended with pay pending termination on suspicion of taking medication from the drug deposit container at 1835 Sheridan Drive.
A news release from Tonawanda Police Lt. Thomas Haynes identified them as Jon Cinelli, 52, and Jeremy Pecoraro, 40. They were terminated by the town on Thursday, but their attorney contends the firings violated the pair's due process rights.
Haynes said the two were arrested Friday on suspicion of criminal possession of a controlled substance. However, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn on Tuesday said only Pecoraro has been charged with the misdemeanor drug crime, as well as petit larceny and a violation under New York public health law.
Cinelli is under investigation but has not been charged, said Flynn, who did not elaborate. Asked about the correction from the DA's Office, Haynes declined to comment.
Cinelli was suspected, Haynes said in the town statement, after officials observed him emptying the drug deposit bin alone. Department policy requires that two paramedics perform the task.
An investigation then implicated Pecoraro, Haynes said, although he declined to explain further. Haynes also did not say when Cinelli was discovered nor why department officials are so sure the two were keeping the drugs for personal use and were not selling them.
Cinelli has been a town paramedic for 22½ years, while Pecoraro has been on the staff for 4½ years. Town police said both were supporting an addiction to opiates.
The two men belong to the town's union that represents salaried employees, said Paul Weiss, the union's attorney. The town held a hearing Monday where the men were informed of the suspensions and the disciplinary charges they face, Weiss said.
"We will be defending them regarding those charges based on facts, not allegations," Weiss said.
Kenmore's then-Police Chief Peter J. Breitnauer told the FBI agents who arrested him last October that he had developed an addiction to painkillers and showed them a closet in his office where he had hidden more than 100 hydrocodone pills, the U.S. Attorney's Office reported. Breitnauer later resigned and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge, receiving no jail time.
"Nobody is immune from the opioid addiction problem," Burstein said.
Phillips said the drop box in the entrance to Police Headquarters always was on camera. But Breitnauer decided only he would have access to the drugs in the box, said Phillips, Kenmore's new police chief.
Now, the drop box remains under video surveillance, as does the route that officers follow to a secured room – also on camera – where drugs are temporarily stored after the drop box is full. Two officers are involved at every step of the process, Phillips said.
The removed drugs are weighed at Police Headquarters and again after they are handed over for disposal, he said, and the village maintains the records to ensure the weights match up.
"I couldn't think of any other steps to take that could make it more secure," he said.
The procedures in Amherst, which started offering a drug drop-off box last June, are less extensive but also are meant to prevent the diversion of the drugs by department personnel, Police Capt. Michael Camilleri said.
He said one detective handles the drugs as they are removed from the drop box, taken to temporary storage in cardboard barrels in a secured location at Police Headquarters and then taken to the Erie County Sheriff's Office substation at Chestnut Ridge Park before they are destroyed.
News Staff Reporters Keith McShea and Dale Anderson contributed to this report.