Sunday, June 26, 2022

Wilmington looks to ‘LEAD’ the way out of the opioid epidemic

"What we were doing, as law enforcement, it wasn’t working – it wasn’t working for us or for people dealing with addiction."

Wilmington has been ranked as the number-one abuser of opioids in the nation. Like many other hard-hit cities, Wilmington is considering trying something new to combat the crisis. (Port City Daily photo / COURTESY CASTLIGHT)
Wilmington has been ranked as the number-one abuser of opioids in the nation. Like many other hard-hit cities, Wilmington is considering trying something new to combat the crisis. (Port City Daily photo/COURTESY CASTLIGHT)

WILMINGTON — As cities and town across the nation combat the growing epidemic of opioid addiction, local law enforcement increasingly finds there is no way to “arrest our way out of it.”

That’s a phrase you’ll hear from District Attorney Ben David, Wilmington Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham and other law enforcement leaders in the Cape Fear Region (more about that increasingly common sentiment here).

The problem remains, though, that officers in the street have little or no discretion over whether to arrest someone addicted to opioids if they are found with illegal drugs in possession. What follows an arrest is a lengthy, expensive and what some officials say is an often fruitless legal process; one that taxes the already-strained resources of local law enforcement and fails to do anything about a suspect’s addiction.

In Wilmington, officers frequently complain about both arresting and medically resuscitating the same people repeatedly (read more about ‘Narcan fatigue’ here). The city eventually turned to other areas hit hard by the opioid epidemic for fresh ideas about how to tackle the crisis.

Following Fayetteville’s LEAD

Jarryd Rauhoff, a police specialist (equivalent to a police corporal) with the Fayetteville Police Department, works with Fayetteville’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. Founded in Seattle in 2011, LEAD allows people struggling with drug addiction to be “diverted” from prosecution and into long-term mental health care programs.

“Before LEAD, there was no officer discretion when it came to felony charges; even if it’s a traffic stop and we saw it, any amount, we had to prosecute,” Rauhoff said. “The cost is really detrimental. There’s manpower use – an officer is going to take two hours at the correctional facility, they have to fill out a felony folder. And then there is the district attorney’s time, there is a grand jury, a prosecutor.”

(Watch a Seattle police officer, a health-care case-worker and a man dealing with addiction talk about the LEAD program.)

The most frustrating part for Rauhoff and other officers was the suspects were often suffering from debilitating addictions. For Rauhoff, that was both a personal and a professional issue.

“I understand things a little differently, and maybe a little better than some people,” Rauhoff said. “My mother, unfortunately, was a heroin addict. So, I grew up in a household seeing that. I get it, it’s a medical issue more than a law enforcement issue. What we were doing, as law enforcement, it wasn’t working – it wasn’t working for us or for people dealing with addiction. And when what you’re doing doesn’t work, you have to – at a certain point – try something new.”

That “something new” was the LEAD program, which allows officers to take someone struggling with addiction, not to jail or to court, but to get help. The system puts prosecution on hold in favor of a task-force approach; each case is reviewed every couple of weeks by the district attorney’s office, the arresting officer and health care professionals.

For people who drop out of the program – refusing to check in and go to meetings – the police have the option to prosecute, but – according to Rauhoff, that hasn’t happened in Fayetteville.

“We started in October of 2016, and we now have 14 people in the program,” Rauhoff said. “We haven’t had to revert to prosecution for anyone, thankfully.”

The program isn’t a quick fix. For those who avoid prosecution by going into the LEAD program, it is for the long haul.

“When you’re in this program, you’re in this for life. It might be that you’re transitioning from daily meetings, to twice-weekly meetings, to a monthly meeting, but you’re in it,” Rauhoff said.

Proponents of the program – including staunch supporter Robert Childs, of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition – argue that the programs reduce violent crime.  Law-enforcement agents like Rauhoff argue that it saves taxpayers’ money by reducing the man-hours spent on felony prosecution. The arguments hit home with Wilmington Police Department, which will launch their own LEAD program on Thursday, June 1.

LEAD launches in Wilmington

Wilmington's police department is ready to "try something new," according to Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham. The city's new Law Enforcement Assisted Development (LEAD) will take a tactic in dealing with victims of drug addiction. (Port City Daily photo / FILE PHOTO)
Wilmington’s police department is ready to “try something new,” according to Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham. The city’s new Law Enforcement Assisted Development (LEAD) will take a tactic in dealing with victims of drug addiction. (Port City Daily photo/FILE PHOTO)

Deputy Police Chief Mitch Cunningham said 12 LEAD-trained officers will “become active” in Wilmington, though the program is still in its early stages.

“We’ve established the structures of our committees (of prosecutors, officers and health workers), and there’s still some work to be done, but we’ve created the foundation.”

Wilmington’s police department only has the funding to run a pilot LEAD program, but Cunningham said he hopes there will be a continuing commitment.

“It’s a pilot program, we’re just starting, but we hope that we will be successful here as many other cities have been successful,” Cunningham said. “We obviously hope to keep the program going…one thing you learn in LEAD training is that you’re never out of the program. That’s just the reality of the psychology of people are predisposed to opioid addiction. But it’s a commitment both ways.”

Cunningham pointed to escalating cartel activity in Mexico as one reason that commitment is so important.

“When you look globally, when you’re talking about cartels in Mexico, that now actually account for 90 percent of the opium-based drugs, they’re becoming increasingly violent for profit and territory,” he said. “The supply side, there’s not any relief coming there anytime soon.”

Cunningham said he hopes the program will help stem the supply of demand, which has driven gang-related violence in Wilmington.

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