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Escaping Addiction

Jeffersontown Police Department Helps Drug Addicts Find Treatment Through Angel Program

As a child, Sgt. Brittney Garrett was neighbors with a girl who lived on the same street but ended up on a different life path.

“We were friends who hung out regularly. She later became a drug addict and I became a cop,” says Garrett, a 10-year veteran of the Jeffersontown Police Department. “We wound up living opposite lives and it’s all due to happenstance.”

It’s a sobering story that illustrates just how arbitrary drug addiction can be. Like a tornado, it grabs this person but not that one. It snuffs the life out of one but spares another. Addiction is sad, stupefying and scary. According to the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy 2015 Overdose Fatality Report, Jefferson County has seen more overdose deaths than all other counties in the state.

Compelled to do something, Garrett researched the Gloucester (Massachusetts) Angel Initiative that was launched in June 2015 to get drug addicts treatment before it’s too late. The gist of the program is that anybody who is struggling with an addiction can walk into the police department, turn in their drugs without penalty and receive help. The program led to the creation of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a nonprofit organization designed to support local police departments as they work with opioid addicts.

“I thought the Angel Program was radical but interesting,” says Garrett, who sought to set up something similar in Jeffersontown. Ultimately, the department launched its own initiative in August 2016.

Jeffersontown experiences an average of one opioid-related overdose a day, a statistic that Garrett attributes to urbanization and access to drugs.

“We’re a heavily populated area,” Garrett says. “We have pipelines of drugs coming into our community given our geographic location because it’s easier to get off of 64 and drop drugs here than it is to go to one side of the state or the other.”

Garrett notes that the lack of affordable housing and limited access to social services all contribute to increased drug use and crime rates. In February 2017, the J-town community was inundated with overdoses as fentanyl, heroin’s synthetic cousin, found its way into addicts’ hands.

“We had a slew of overdoses in 36 hours,” Garrett says. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

The fact that such potent drugs have become so rampant across the U.S. is what prompted Garrett’s proactivity. Drug dependencies were born out of doctor-prescribed pain killers, which created a new brand of drug abusers in moms, dads, sons and daughters. Many of these folks turned to heroin, a cheaper option that was easier to score on the streets and provided just as good of a high, if not better.

“The drug cartels were eager to start pumping those drugs into our communities when we were most vulnerable,” Garrett says.

Drug-related deaths keep climbing because drugs are becoming more toxic. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine and many times that of heroin.

“You can use the same dose you used the day before and die,” Garrett says. “You can use less than the day before and still die.”

According to the Louisville Courier Journal, between 2015 and 2016, overdose deaths increased by 34 percent, largely due to fentanyl or fentanyl/heroin combination. The Drug Enforcement Administration warns that even two milligrams of the substance can be lethal.

Before launching the Angel Program in J-town, Garrett initialized partnerships with a variety of local treatment centers and harm reduction organizations who helped the police force understand the holistic picture of addiction. They partnered with The Healing Place, a social model recovery program and Young People in Recovery (YPR), an organization for people in their 20s and early 30s, who trained Jeffersontown police officers in a peer-support type setting.

For some cops, this was a huge cultural shift.

“You have to remember, when we see addiction, it’s people at their worst —committing crimes, engaging in violent episodes, fighting us,” Garrett says.

Working with former addicts, however, encouraged officers to see addiction from a different side.

“It’s so important for us to see the human side of addiction,” Garrett says. “These are our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, coworkers. These are people that come from all walks of life and all financial statuses.”

Garrett hopes that the program’s philosophy spreads across the United States.

“We can be strict on enforcement and stop these drug traffickers from pedaling drugs in our city, but we can also extend that olive branch to people who need help and want access to treatment,” Garrett says.

Addiction professionals have found that the population of addicts continues to get younger. In the 80s and 90s, it was older people entering treatment facilities, many of them battling alcoholism. Today, however, it’s younger folks crippled by hard drugs.

“It’s a much different disease we’re dealing with nowadays,” Garrett says. “Alcoholism can get you in the long run, but heroin can get you in the moment.”

Garrett highlights the voluntary nature of the program, clarifying that the way people receive assistance is by willingly seeking it out.

“You have to come into the police station or flag down an officer to enact this program,” Garrett says. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, I want help’, just as you’re getting arrested. It doesn’t work like that.”

The reason users avoid seeking treatment is often due to the stigma surrounding addiction. Cost of treatment and transportation limitations can also factor in. For instance, perhaps there’s not a bed in a local facility but there is one across the state, so how do people get there? And who pays for it?

Then there’s the overwhelming feeling of simply not knowing where to start. Addicts wonder if they can muster the courage to tell their families the truth or to step inside the police station and divulge their deep, dark secret. For those who do, freedom is its own reward.

Garrett tells of a woman who came into the station last August, heavily addicted to meth amphetamine and heroin.

“Her life was completely out of control,” Garrett says. “But we were able to connect some dots for her and get her into treatment.”

The Angel Program helped the woman get reconnected to her community. She also reconnected with her daughter, whom she had lost to the courts when she was spiraling downward. Now clean for nearly a year, she’s seeking to regain custody of her child and working to find a job.

“She’s come a long way,” says Garrett, who often gets calls from former addicts who report that they are doing well. “That’s what it’s all about. Are they doing better now than when they walked in the door? In almost every case, they are.”

The Angel Program in Jeffersontown has a growing network (40-plus) of treatment centers, both in and out of state. Though Jeffersontown was the first in Kentucky to launch such an initiative, Garrett is optimistic that others will follow suit.

To date, more than 200 police departments across the country have committed to a similar program. To learn more, visit jeffersontownky.com/678/Angel-Program.

About Christy Heitger-Ewing

Christy Heitger-Ewing is an award-winning writer and columnist who writes human interest stories for national, regional, and local magazines. She is also the author of the book “Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat” (www.cabinglory.com).

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