Suburban drug programs ask users to trust cops
The moment two Libertyville cops sat down in front of her in a hospital waiting room, Danya Vazquez second-guessed her choice.
The 24-year-old resident of Round Lake, who'd used heroin for about four years, wanted to get clean and was seeking relief from her painful withdrawal symptoms. When a nurse told her police offered a program that could help her, Vazquez -- miserable and out of it -- agreed to speak with the officers.
"When I first saw the cops I was afraid, because I still had paraphernalia on me," she said. "I was actually scared that I was going to get in trouble. It actually hit me that, 'These are not my friends.'"
But the officers asked her to trust them, which Vazquez did. She turned in her baggies and straws with drug residue, and two days later, police secured her a spot in an inpatient drug treatment program in Lake Villa, where she spent 45 days starting in late October.
She now lives in a halfway house in Waukegan, works as a receptionist and, for the first time in a long time, feels there is hope for her.
"I am very grateful for those cops coming to talk to me, because at that point in my life, I was welcoming death," she said. "I consider that a huge blessing that I got the chance to talk to them."
Vazquez is not alone. More than 80 suburban drug users have been helped since late 2015 by a new type of police program borne out of the realization that it's not enough to tackle the war on drugs via the criminal justice system alone.
"This is not traditional law enforcement, but what has traditional law enforcement gotten us in the last 20 or 30 years in terms of addiction, mental health, domestic violence?" Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther said. "You can name the topic, and it would apply. If we are leaders in our profession, we need to figure out different ways to attack these social issues."
The police programs have a variety of names: "A Way Out" in Lake County; "Connect for Life" in Naperville; "Second Chance" in Rolling Meadows; and "We Can Help" in Elgin, the latest department to join the effort.
All invite drug users who want help to come to the police station to talk to officers and get connected to treatment providers. People can even turn in their drugs and drug paraphernalia to the cops, who will destroy them.
Police partner with local treatment center leaders, who commit to do everything they can to find appropriate placement for the drug users. The programs, with an ultimate goal of preventing crime, come at no cost other than the officers' time, Elgin Police Cmdr. Colin Fleury said.
"We are helping (the drug users') safety but also increasing the safety of the public, so they don't make those choices to break into cars and break into houses to try to fund their drug use," he said. "It's a win-win for everyone."
There are some differences among the programs. For instance, drug users with outstanding warrants don't qualify in Elgin, which also won't offer the program as an alternative to arrest.
In Naperville, people with a violent criminal history, or those who have three or more drug-related convictions including one related to drug trafficking, are not eligible.
Outstanding warrants aren't necessarily a problem in Lake County, where the state's attorney's office -- a partner in the initiative -- can speed up pending court cases to get people into treatment quickly.
In Rolling Meadows, police officers even have, on occasion, made the program available to people they were about to arrest, believing it would serve them much better than a stint in jail.
The Elgin program has served two people since it rolled out early last month. Rolling Meadows and Naperville have assisted eight and nine people, respectively, since October 2015 and March 2016, and more than 60 people got help in Lake County since last summer.
The Elgin program targets heroin addiction, Naperville and Rolling Meadows include all opioid addictions, and Lake County also has helped people with alcohol, methamphetamine and cocaine addictions.
The program took off quickly in Lake County and will expand to 10 communities within the next 60 days, but it was a slower go elsewhere.
"It took months before we saw our first one," Rolling Meadows Cmdr. Tom Gadomski said. "On our Facebook page we had over 1 millions hits within a week, but in the comments they were saying, 'Do not trust them. This is a total trick. They are going to lure you in and they are going to arrest you.'"
The key is spreading the word through people in recovery, their families and the faith-based community, said Danny Langloss Jr., police chief in Dixon, Illinois, which launched the first program in the state in September 2015.
The initiative has helped more than 150 people from Dixon and surrounding counties; there now are more than 200 programs in more than 30 states, he said. "The word-of-mouth started to spread that this was for real, that the police wanted to help -- and it took off from there."
So, police officers as social workers?
Precisely, officers said.
"That's one of the hats we wear -- social workers," Fleury said. "We have enforcement ways that have been tried on the war on drugs for years, and the success of that hasn't always been that great. So we need to think out of the box."
Naperville Police Deputy Chief Jason Arres agreed. "What is the purpose of a police officer? To help people in need. Obviously there is a time for us to catch criminals, but this is a step outside the box for police."
Drug overdose deaths in Illinois increased from 1,579 in 2013 to 1,836 in 2015, according to data from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Of those, 844 involved heroin in 2015, up from 583 two years before.
Police officers are tired of "spinning their wheels in the mud" by arresting the same people, over and over, for the same drug offenses, Mundelein Chief Guenther said. "Ninety percent of what law enforcement is, is social work," he said.
The more, the better
The programs help re-establish the notion among drug users that the police do care, said Karen Wolownik Albert, executive director of the Lake Villa facility of Gateway Alcohol & Drug Treatment Centers.
"They can give help in a way that will not only help individuals but also impacts our community's safety and increase the ways that people get help," she said.
Most people's treatment can be covered financially, she said. Some people are eligible under their health insurance plans, while others qualify for services through Medicaid and treatment providers' contracts with the state.
Meanwhile, the police running these programs say they should work elsewhere.
"We can arrest people and we can put people in jail," Arres said, "but people are still dying."