What happens after suburban cops save a heroin addict's life?

When a police officer saves a heroin user's life with an overdose reversal drug, the question often becomes: What next?

The user is living and breathing, but the addiction may still be raging.

Some heroin users, saved once by a cop with a dose of naloxone, Evzio or Narcan, wind up overdosing again and need an officer to step in for another “save,” as law enforcement leaders call it.

Since December 2014 Lake County officers have made 65 such rescues.

“We began to understand that's just simply not enough,” said George Filenko, a leader of the Lake County Opioid Initiative. “We've got to take individuals and assist them into taking that other step into rehab ... so we don't have repeat patients.”

Police departments across the suburbs are beginning to agree. Several are developing programs in which officers serve as a connection between residents in the throes of heroin addiction and treatment centers that exist to help them. The programs come with varying levels of anonymity and immunity from arrest for drug possession. But they all come with the same goal: Take lifesaving a step further and help addicts progress toward recovery.

“The whole goal is getting them better,” said Cmdr. Tom Gadomski in Rolling Meadows, where police have helped six heroin users begin treatment since launching a program in October.

Following that lead, Naperville is starting a program today called Connect for Life. Similarly, the Lake County Opioid Initiative plans to pilot a countywide program starting in May or June with seven departments. And one anti-heroin advocate, Tim Ryan, who runs A Man In Recovery Foundation, says he's heard departments in Lisle and Carol Stream also are interested in offering such help.

“Certainly it's becoming a lot more common” for police to offer help against heroin — not just handcuffs, said Ed Wojcicki, executive director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police. “Because it's a prevalent problem and it's related not only to people's safety but to other crimes, you're going to see a lot of attention paid to it — to how can we get this under control?”

Community solution

The epidemic of heroin abuse that caught fire around 2010 has not yet peaked, drug enforcement authorities say. In 2015, more than 160 people in DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties, and the Northwest suburbs in Cook County, died of heroin overdoses.

So the need to do more to save lives is evident to police officials such as Deputy Chief Brian Cunningham in Naperville. Starting today, police will offer seven volunteer sobriety coaches to meet with heroin users and connect them with one of six treatment centers. The program will be available during lobby hours of 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, so anyone who needs detox or counseling can meet with a professional without delay.

“It's not the police department solving the problem,” Cunningham said. “It's the community.”

Police won't pay for treatment — that will be up to the user's insurance or a rotation among providers based on which facility has space for patients without coverage.

Those who bring in drugs and the supplies to use them will not be penalized for possession, but Cunningham said cops won't waive the right to arrest a person who comes forward wanted on a warrant, involved in a pending case or presenting violent behavior. Naperville police also will continue to seek out dealers selling heroin within the city's borders.

“It's not about amnesty,” Cunningham said. “It's about making all the connections we can to get (heroin users) the help they need.”

‘Filling in gaps'

One thing users need is someone who gets it, said sobriety coach Brad Gerke of Lombard, who understands the “unmanageability” of an addict's life from his years using heroin and alcohol.

“The feeling of uselessness, overwhelming and crippling fear,” Gerke, 31, said. “Once they hit that point, then you're able to start to looking for help.”

Sobriety coaches will be the first notified when a person calls or visits the Naperville police station seeking treatment. Then one of 12 on-call therapists with Riverwalk Counseling Center in Naperville will conduct a level-of-care assessment following the standards of the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

The assessment will determine — based on withdrawal symptoms, physical health, mental health, relapse potential, recovery environment and motivation to change — whether the user needs a hospital detox, an inpatient rehab program or various levels of outpatient counseling, said Charlene Scott, president of Riverwalk Counseling.

Even before the program officially launched, Cunningham said he heard from three people who needed direction to find appropriate help. He thinks the phone will keep ringing, but he's not expecting scores of heroin addicts to step into the station come this morning.

“I think in most cases it won't be the user,” Cunningham said. “A lot of it is filling in the gaps for the parents.”

Sobriety coaches and treatment providers said it'll take a while for those using heroin to build trust with police.

“For an addict to change that perception and walk into a police department, I think that's going to take some time,” said Matt Quinn, outreach counselor at the Naperville office of Rosecrance Health Network.

Building trust

Rolling Meadows creates trust by offering its Second Chance program anonymously, something Naperville won't do. Police don't run names for warrants or ask many questions in the Rolling Meadows program, Gadomski said. But police social workers conduct a background check to ensure the user lives in the city before connecting them with treatment through Therapeutic Interventions, a clinic that prescribes methadone to ease the symptoms of withdrawal as users break their habit, or another recovery program.

Gadomski said police pay for the treatment using federal funds recouped from drug seizures in major cases.

“We're paying the bill but we're not constantly doing a follow-up to see how they're doing,” Gadomski said. “We want to give them some separation for a comfort level.”

No matter the specifics of these police-led recovery assistance programs, drug treatment providers say they're a major step in erasing the stigma surrounding heroin addiction.

“It's such a great opportunity for people with an illness to get well,” said Suzette Papadakis, clinical director of Banyan Treatment Center in Naperville. “It's an open door as opposed to punishing them for a disease process. They're able to get help if they want it, which is really a neat situation.”

Sobriety coach Jessica Alvarez of Lombard said she's grateful for the opportunity to give back by helping police help heroin users turn around their lives.

“Most importantly, you want to give hope,” said Alvarez, 31, who has been sober from heroin for seven years. “My experience shows that in a life full of addiction, that there is hope. If someone like me can recover, anyone can do it.”

Rolling Meadows police offer 'Second Chance' for heroin addicts

  Naperville Deputy Police Chief Brian Cunningham, center, is leading creation of a program called Connect for Life, which launches Monday, to help heroin users find appropriate treatment. Banyan Treatment Center in downtown Naperville, where Cunningham talks with Caroline Kacena, who lost her son to an overdose, and Tim Ryan, who runs A Man In Recovery Foundation, is one of several participating treatment facilities. Marie Wilson/ November 2015
  Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko says his department will be one of seven this spring testing what is planned as a countywide program to offer heroin users help if they come forward. The Lake County Opioid Initiative aims to launch the program in May or June. Steve Lundy/, August 2014
Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther says the Lake County Opioid Initiative is finalizing plans for a countywide program in which heroin users will be able to walk into several police stations to seek help and treatment. Daily Herald file photo
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