Suburban police no longer feeling 'helpless' against heroin
Danielle Nicholas was employed, living in her own apartment and "going places."
Now she's a photo on a Lake County cop's desk.
Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko displays a framed image of the fallen heroin user as he takes a leading role in fighting the drug in the suburbs.
"This is the most addictive narcotic out there," he says. "This is in an epidemic stage."
He recalls the first time his officers pulled Danielle over for a traffic stop. They found syringes and containers with heroin residue. Filenko remembers how Danielle's brother, a police officer himself, was desperate to get her into treatment, and how she completed a program.
Danielle was clean for at least a year, but on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago, she got a call from some old friends who wanted to reunite. And do heroin.
"She really had everything together, and it (only) took a couple of seconds and she was dead," Filenko says.
Round Lake Park police helped put behind bars the man who sold Danielle the fatal dose, but Filenko says his crusade against heroin couldn't stop there. Spurred by 215 heroin overdose deaths in 2012 and 2013 in Lake, DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties, he and other police officials are stepping up their efforts to combat the drug.
Filenko led Operation Street Sweep, which resulted in more than 200 arrests for gang and drug activity in the past two years. He testified before the state legislature's heroin task force. And he's heavily involved in the Lake County Opioid Initiative, which is equipping officers with a drug that stops the effects of a heroin overdose and saves lives.
"The law enforcement end, that's not the solution. It's a part of the solution, but it's not the entire solution," Filenko says. "There has got to be public information."
Filenko is far from the only cop who cares about the devastating effects heroin is having on users and communities, and he's not the only one to propose a two-step attack of enforcement and education.
"We look at drug prevention as a twofold strategy," Naperville Police Chief Robert Marshall says. "We're responsible to arrest those who deal narcotics -- enforcement. And we're involved in education and preventive strategies."
Enforcement means learning the trends of drug sales -- who's buying and who's selling, where the deals are happening and where the drugs are coming from. It's surveillance and working with informants, conducting searches and poring over phone records, executing undercover operations and collaborating with regional and national agencies.
During the Round Lake Park operation, Filenko says he learned about a disturbing trend in the heroin trade -- dealers offering free samples.
"These guys are out there selling pot and also giving away samples of heroin," he says. "That sample is worth about $20. Once you take it, you're hooked."
Lessons learned in drug enforcement translate into lessons shared in drug education, Filenko says.
Through the Lake County Opioid Initiative, which Filekno helped create nearly two years ago, officials are informing residents how addictive heroin is so they won't be tempted by the free samples.
Notes Naperville's Marshall, "There are no directions on a packet of heroin that say how much you should use and how much you should take within a certain time period, and that's how people overdose. They take it and combine it with alcohol, pills and other substances."
With overdose prevention in mind, Filenko and Lake County leaders are educating people about the benefits of Naloxone and training police officers how to use it. Naloxone, a heroin overdose reversal drug also called Narcan, works by blocking the receptors in the brain that are stimulated by opiates. It begins almost immediately to undo an overdose that can stop a person from breathing.
Lake County is following the lead of DuPage County, which trained 1,700 police officers to use Narcan earlier this year as part of Coroner Richard Jorgensen's efforts to stem the tide of heroin overdoses, which took a record 46 lives last year in DuPage. Putting the heroin antidote in the hands of police officers can help save lives when they respond to an overdose before paramedics arrive, and this year in DuPage officers already have saved 25 lives using the drug, Jorgensen says.
Officers in 28 Lake County departments have been trained to use Naloxone and will begin carrying it as soon as next week, when the county is expected to receive delivery of the drug, Filenko says. At least 85 officers are qualified to train others how to use it in either a nasal spray or injectable form; the Lake County Health Department will track how many lives are saved once officers begin administering it.
"To me it was as simple as this: Give it to me, show me how to use it, and I'll make sure all my officers have it," Filenko says. "Let's not delay this; let's get this out there."
No longer 'helpless'
Drug prevention education takes different shapes in different places.
In Naperville, police-led education efforts are teaching parents to spot warning signs to head off a heroin addiction in their children, but they're focusing most on the link between prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction.
"Individuals in their teens and 20s are getting addicted to painkillers and then going to heroin because it's easier to get and cheaper to buy," Marshall says. "Our objective is to get these prescription painkillers out of people's homes."
"We think that is what will limit the demand" for heroin, Deputy Chief Brian Cunningham says. "Once you get to the heroin level, it's hard to stop that demand because they're hooked."
Naperville police collected unwanted prescription drugs in 37 neighborhoods during National Night Out in August. And in April, the city's police and fire departments made 11 drug takeback boxes available -- 10 of which are accessible 24 hours a day. In six months, the boxes have collected 1,180 pounds of unwanted or expired medications.
Police still are searching for ways to educate people who don't pay attention to public service messages or attend drug-prevention forums. And they're still finding new dealers and users to arrest.
But they're not feeling helpless when it comes to preventing the deaths of people such as Danielle Nicholas, the woman whose photo sits on Filenko's desk.
"My job as a law enforcement officer is to serve and protect, not observe and neglect," Filenko says, highlighting the personal responsibility he feels to do all he can to prevent needless overdose deaths. "Lake County officers will no longer have to stand next to an overdose victim and feel helpless. We can now say we did everything we could."
• This article is part of our "Heroin in the Suburbs: Through Their Eyes" series. For more see http://bit.ly/DailyHeraldHeroinSeries
Part threeHeroin has taken hold in the suburbs, and turning a blind eye to it isn't acceptable anymore. In an occasional series, the Daily Herald examines the heroin problem through they eyes of those it affects and those who are fighting it. Today, we take a look through the eyes of Round Lake Park Police Chief George Filenko, who is leading efforts in Lake County to equip officers with an antidote to heroin overdoses.