Focusing on treatment instead of criminal punishment, Lake County police departments and health agencies are teaming to help drug addicts and alcoholics get and stay sober in a new program that may be unprecedented in its size and reach.
Called "A Way Out," the effort allows anyone addicted to illegal drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol or other substances to seek treatment simply by walking into the lobby of a participating police station and asking for help. Police will even dispose of the addict's unwanted drugs without filing possession charges.
"As a prosecutor, I often find myself in a position of being able to help people only after an arrest has been made," Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said at a Wednesday news conference. "And many people that struggle with addiction also struggle with the additional stressors that accompany being involved in the criminal justice system."
With A Way Out, Nerheim said, someone seeking substance abuse treatment can get it without the fear of arrest. Concern about landing in the criminal justice system often is a roadblock for an addict to seek treatment, he added.
Participation is not limited to Lake County residents. Anyone who brings illegal drugs to turn in and seeks help at a police station that is not yet part of the pilot program will be directed to a participating agency without consequences.
The program also gives police officers broad discretion in how it can be used on the street.
However, Kevin Kaminski, a recovering heroin addict from an unincorporated area near Ingleside who provided input for A Way Out, acknowledged it could be difficult convincing potential participants they can trust police.
"Of course it's a hurdle," said Kaminski, 42, who plans to become a state-certified alcohol and drug counselor after graduating from College of Lake County in the fall. "And that's kind of where I come in. And that's where a couple of people I know come in, that have actually gone through diversion programs with the police, with law enforcement, with the state's attorney's office."
A gradual rollout
Involving seven police departments, as well as local hospitals, drug treatment centers and other health officials, A Way Out is orchestrated by the Lake County Opioid Initiative, a group formed to battle drug addiction and drug-related deaths.
Participating in the first phase are police departments in Grayslake, Gurnee, Lake Forest, Libertyville, Mundelein, Round Lake Beach and Round Lake Park.
Lake County's strategy is modeled after an amnesty program launched last year in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in response to growing concerns about drug abuse in that seaside community. Other law-enforcement agencies around the country have created similar programs, including Rolling Meadows police.
But none have served areas as geographically large or as populous as Lake County, nor has any involved as many law enforcement agencies. The test program is rolling out gradually to prevent hospitals and treatment centers from being inundated with addicts, officials said.
"Nobody's done this at this scale," said Nerheim, who was part of the group that formed A Way Out.
Whereas Rolling Meadows' "Second Chance" program is only available to residents of that suburb, Lake County's program is open to anyone seeking help with drug or alcohol addiction. That could mean a resident of southern Wisconsin, someone visiting Lake County or someone who drives to one of the participating stations from elsewhere in Illinois.
More Lake County departments are interested in participating and will come aboard when the second phase launches within three to six months, Nerheim said. He hopes to have every department in Lake County participating within a year for what he calls a "pre-arrest diversion" program that places a priority on getting people medical assistance to deal with drug or alcohol addiction rather than sending them to jail.
"It's the right thing to do," he said. "It's going to help people."
A tool for police
Arresting and rearresting drug users isn't stopping substance abuse, drug-related deaths or crimes such as burglary and robbery that are associated with drug use, said Mundelein Public Safety Director Eric Guenther, who is helping Nerheim lead the program.
"This is hopefully a way to stop that cycle," Guenther told the Daily Herald.
To get help through A Way Out, a drug user simply needs to visit a participating police station and ask for addiction assistance. Officers in the seven departments have been trained to respond and will get basic information about the person seeking help as part of the process.
The person seeking treatment will be responsible for paying for the services, Nerheim said, whether through medical insurance or other means.
"We understand that people with various levels of ability to pay will come through the doors," he said. "Our goal is to find treatment for everybody, regardless of their ability to pay."
Voluntary participation is required. Someone caught with drugs during a traffic stop can't ask for help through A Way Out as a way to avoid prosecution, Nerheim said.
However, officers will have individual discretion outside of the police station.
Gurnee Police Chief Kevin Woodside said he's already discussed with his officers how the program can be used.
"They are looking at this as a tool, an opportunity for them to change the discussions they're having with people they intersect with that suffer from an addiction, somebody they're arresting for another crime or maybe somebody that they're directly dealing with in their home or on the street that has an addiction issue, that they can offer them an alternative," Woodside said after the news conference. "And they have the discretion to do that outside the station."