Eight addicts have gone to Wellington police officers for help since May, finding treatment options instead of arrest.
They’ve been sent to rehab facilities as far away as California and Arizona, with six ending up out of state.
Ohio is on the front line of America’s heroin epidemic, with rural areas like Wellington being affected the most. Police chief Tim Barfield and Lt. Jeff Shelton are trying to fight the deadly drug with the LINC program, which stands for Local Initiative Networking Compassion.
Shelton announced LINC during a town hall meeting on heroin in the spring, saying the department would no longer arrest those who step forward and admit they’ve become addicted. Instead, they are now connected with the Police Addiction Assistance Recovery Initiative, a national program that places them in rehabilitation centers all over the country.
“The first person came in here for help before the town hall,” he said. “We generated a lot of interest there. An hour after it ended, people were coming up and hugging and thanking us. It kind of went viral from there. We began hearing from people all over the area, even out of county.”
Wellington has the only police department in Lorain County that officially offers this sort of program, he said. Several addicts have come to the village from surrounding counties after hearing about LINC.
Seven of the eight were led to addiction by drugs they were legally prescribed.
“We get this idea in our mind of what a drug addict is,” said Barfield. “These are people who had medical procedures and made no decision to experiment with drugs. The fairly consistent story is they’re on this opiate for pain management and are then cut off by the doctor. At this point they’re dependent. They go out seeking the drug and after a while it becomes too expensive. Heroin presents itself as a cheaper alternative. It meets the need.”
He said the physical and psychological aspects of addiction must be addressed to properly treat it.
“A tolerance starts to build up too, whether its prescription drugs or heroin,” he said. “They become addicted and we know what the spiral is. There’s doctors out there that just don’t care.”
Contributing factors within the medical community must also be addressed, Barfield said.
“How much of this is the responsibility of the doctors is eye opening,” he said. “There’s an ignorance of what these drugs can do. There must be a stronger sense of morality when these decisions are being made.”
Both officers said they were shocked when they learned the true extent of dependency that can stem from prescription opioids.
“When I started working with drugs, cocaine was the big problem,” said Shelton. “Cocaine is nothing like heroin. It’s just been an eye-opener. These people now can’t just quit.”
Batches of heroin are often laced with the anesthetic fentanyl and animal tranquilizer carfentanil, creating an even more serious threat for users.
“One person we sent in told us a story,” said Shelton. “He told us about the period in Akron where 30 people died in two days. This person and his friends were making a trip to Akron every day for that drug. They said if you die, it’s a good high. That’s exactly what he told me. They had no fear of death and wanted that high.”
“Death starts to look good,” said Barfield. “None of these people want to be here. Even the one out of our eight who made the choice to try heroin didn’t think they’d ever get to this point. At the end of the day it’s a road to hell and no one wants to be on it.”
Shelton said heroin manufacturers add in the extra ingredients because it cuts down on cost. You can take a gram of heroin, mix it with a gram of fentanyl, and have two to three grams to sell.
Ohio was the first state in the country to allow emergency responders to carry naloxone, widely known by the brand name Narcan, to combat overdoses. Naloxone, though, is ineffective in overdoses involving fentanyl.
“If they wouldn’t have done that I think we’d have a much higher death rate,” said Shelton. “I think it’s gotten this bad here because of the doctors and the pills. They write a prescription and send people on their way and don’t think twice about it.”
In October, Barfield spoke to Wellington village council on behalf of Issue 35 on the Lorain County ballot, which did not pass in November. It would have created new funds for drug treatment facilities in the area and more opportunities to place patients closer to home.
The police department operates LINC with no budget but increased demand could begin to make it more difficult to place people in the future.
“This was easier to do when it was in its initial stages,” the chief said. “As more people do it, less and less space is available.”
Barfield and Shelton have been in the police station when all eight people have come in looking for help.
“All of our officers are trained, but chief Barfield and I have been on duty when all eight people have come in, so we’re the ones who’ve placed them,” said Shelton. “After they come in, we help them fill out the paperwork, contact PAARI, contact a minister, and then find a detox center.”
The choice to speak to a minister is left up to the individual but all have requested one. Churches have volunteered their services including First United Methodist and New Life Assembly of God, Shelton said.
Nicole Walmsley is a law enforcement liaison with Sartori Waters, a drug treatment center in Florida, and Ohio’s volunteer state representative for PAARI. She has placed all eight individuals who’ve gone to the WPD for help into rehab.
She spoke at the village’s heroin town hall in May about being born predisposed to addiction because of her mother’s drug use. While giving birth to her own child, she was given a dose of Vicodin, despite telling doctors about her condition.
That led to a multi-year cycle of drug addiction that included being arrested 18 times. After serving prison time, she got clean and has been a recovery advocate ever since.
“It’s been brutal,” she said. “There are a lot of great stories but there’s also a lot of death. So far, 200 people in Ohio have been sent through PAARI and three have died. Those deaths were not overdose related but they were drug related.”
Of the three, one was by hanging, one had a heart attack, and the other was hit by a car when traveling to meet a drug dealer, she said.
Walmsley said the answer to why Ohio has become the epidemic’s front line isn’t clear.
“I talked about that in a meeting with the (Drug Enforcement Administration) and we really don’t know,” she said. “We’re number one in the nation in deaths and our state is the face of this. It could be because of our location. It could be because of our lack of resources. There are so many factors to consider.”
Barfield said her services have been an invaluable part of the process.
“She is a very important part of this whole thing,” he said. “She does so much of the work here. She’s who we make our call to when someone comes out.”
While the strategy to battle addiction continues to shift nationwide, a great deal of work remains to be done, said Shelton.
“I never thought I’d be doing this when I got into law enforcement 26 years ago,” he said. “You threw them in jail and didn’t worry about it. It’s getting to the point now where we see it’s not helping. We’re dealing with the same people over and over again. My guys are troubled seeing dead kids just like the families. If we can put a program in place that works it relieves pressure off of us, the families, and it puts these people back in the community. Being the bad a— and throwing them in jail gets us nowhere. It helps no one.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.
Jonathan Delozier | Wellington Enterprise Police Lt. Jeff Shelton and chief Tim Barfield reflect on the benefits of the Wellington police department’s LINC program. Since officially announcing the initiative in May, the WPD has helped place eight individuals in treatment facilities.
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU