Both candidates in the March Republican primary for DuPage County sheriff say the opioid epidemic is the biggest issue facing the department, but they have different ideas on how to combat it.
Undersheriff Frank Bibbiano and patrol Cmdr. James Mendrick -- both supervisors in the sheriff's office -- are seeking their party's nomination for the post held by their boss, Sheriff John Zaruba, who is retiring at the end of the year. The primary winner will face Democrat Gregory Whalen during the fall election.
During an endorsement interview Wednesday with the Daily Herald, Mendrick said opioids are a huge problem in DuPage and the sheriff's office must lead the effort to address it.
"We need to create a task force where we're taking a leadership role," Mendrick said, "and working with all the other agencies in unison to deal with this problem."
He is proposing a multitiered solution that includes diversionary programs, education and enforcement.
Among other things, he said he wants to use programs to motivate middle and high school students to avoid drugs and for the sheriff's office to host classes to teach parents about drug culture and signs of drugs use.
When it comes to enforcement, Mendrick said investigators should work to catch dealers who use the internet to sell drugs. He also wants the sheriff's office to get more drug-detection dogs to assist municipal police departments.
Mendrick said the sheriff's office must work with other departments to execute a unilateral strategy. "We need to work together as one cohesive unit to have a real impact on this," he said.
Bibbiano says the sheriff's office already has partnerships in place that are "going a long way in fighting the opioid issue."
He said the department has representatives on state and federal drug task forces and deputies serving on a multijurisdictional gang suppression unit.
In addition to continuing those partnerships, Bibbiano said he would promote a program designed to help parents address drug use with their children.
The First Step program allows parents to have the sheriff's office's crime laboratory test suspicious substances without fear of legal action.
"If parents find something in their son or daughter's bedroom and they suspect it's some kind of illicit drug, they could call the sheriff's office," Bibbiano said. "They could legally transport it to our lab, and we will test it for free."
If drugs are detected, parents are given information for where they can seek help.
Bibbiano said the department recently implemented a program offering aftercare visits to opioid users who have been treated for an overdose.
"A deputy and a clinician will go to a person's house after an overdose and ensure they know the resources are available if they want to get clean," he said.
The candidates disagreed on whether the sheriff's office should do more than have a prescription drop box in its lobby.
To make it easier for residents to turn in their unused medication, Mendrick said, the office should offer to pick up medication from homes.
"A lot of the opioid issues start with these unused medications," he said. "To wipe that off the playing field would be a big factor."
Bibbiano questioned whether a pickup service is necessary. "I see problems with storage and disposal of it from an evidence standpoint," he said.
Mendrick, who lives in Woodridge, has 16 years of supervisory experience, including a stint as chief of the administrative bureau. Bibbiano, who lives in Elmhurst, has held several positions with the office, including patrol deputy, detective commander and lead internal affairs investigator.