BISBEE — If you’re addicted to opioids and you want to recover, police in Bisbee, Douglas and Sierra Vista will help you get there.
Taking a cue from other law enforcement agencies around the country who are changing the way they do business with people addicted to the narcotic, police departments in the three municipalities are tackling the opioid epidemic in the region as a health issue, rather than a criminal one.
The three departments are practicing the Angel Initiative, a police-assisted addiction recovery program in which individuals struggling with Substance Use Disorder, are connected to treatment, literally, with help from law enforcement.
That means if someone suffering with addiction shows up at one of these law enforcement agencies and asks for help, or, if police have contact with an addict on the street and the individual asks for help, the person will be taken to a treatment facility, usually by an officer, said Bisbee Police Chief Albert Echave.
And if the person seeking help is in possession of opioids, charges will not be filed and the drugs will be disposed of by police, said Monica Ybarra, a recovering drug addict who is working with Bisbee and Douglas police as part of the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative and AmeriCorp Vista. Ybarra helps both departments with addicts who come forward and ask for help.
“We couldn’t keep doing the same old thing and expect a different result,” Echave said, referring to dealing with addicts by arresting rather than helping them get treatment. “Most agencies are coming up with different programs. We came up with this idea and it has worked very well.”
Bisbee and Douglas were the first in Cochise County to launch the initiative. Soon after, Sierra Vista Police followed suit. Fullen said several people have come to the table to work on a plan that would help addicts who truly want to recover.
An organization called Cochise Addiction Recovery Partnership was formed, Echave said, and more than 60 members that include the State Attorney’s Office, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, the judiciary, mental health professionals, and others, belong to it.
Ybarra, a former heroin addict, says working with law enforcement to help people recover from addiction has been enlightening.
“They learn from my side. I’m learning how they work,” Ybarra said. “We educate each other. They [police] are thinking outside of the box, bringing in someone in recovery to help them help people who want recovery.
“The fact that we’ve gotten to this point is pretty incredible,” Ybarra added..
Fullen said the idea was put forward by Bisbee Mayor David Smith. A former cop, Smith took the initiative to law enforcement. The mayor said he has angered many in Bisbee because he conceded that there is an opioid problem in the area and that it has to be dealt with in a way that will help those who actually want to recover.
“I’ve made a lot of people unhappy,” Smith said. “We know where [in Bisbee] people are nodding off and shooting up. I could probably take you to one of those places and show you right now.”
So far this past year, 22 people have been taken to treatment after they came in contact with Bisbee, Douglas or Sierra Vista police, Echave said.
“This touches everybody. The problem is definitely significant,” Echave said. “There are people out there who have died from this in our community.”
One point both police and Smith wanted to make is that asking for help for addiction is not a “get out of jail free card.”
If someone has an outstanding warrant or police respond to an incident and the person asks for help for their problem, they will get the help, but they must also answer for their offense.
“We will have the occasion where someone is asking for help, but they may have an outstanding warrant. We can’t ignore the warrant, but we can ask the judge if we can get the person released early, get them released quickly. Judges are on board with that,” Fullen said.
Echave said it comes down to police helping people recover from addiction, rather than incarcerating them.
“When somebody is at their darkest hour and they need help, often times we are involved,” Echave said. “For that person to come to us and request help, or if we come across that person and see that they need help, and to offer that and say if you need help, if you want to go to treatment, we will get you there.”