Looking for solutions
Police in the south metro area said while they’re obligated to enforce the laws around fentanyl they also see the benefit, and need, for harm reduction approaches.
“My job isn’t to judge how the person got into the position that they are in, my job is to get them care,” Littleton Police Sgt. Brant Dimoeck said. “The average person that we talk to … they’re not bad people. They have an addiction. They have an issue.”
Sheriff Spurlock said he agrees with the importance of addiction treatment as a tool, noting there are few resources available in jails for people with substance use issues. Drug rehab programs are a possibility, but medicated-assisted treatment, one of the more successful recovery tools, is typically not offered.
“Our jail is not designed for that,” Spurlock said.
Increasing treatment facilities would benefit law enforcement, not only by alleviating burdens on jails, but also by helping to prevent crime, Spurlock said. However, Spurlock still thinks law enforcement has an important role when it comes to responding to drugs in the community.
In Spurlock’s experience, there is significant overlap between people arrested for drug violations and people arrested for property crimes.
“If you have significant and adequate facilities for treatment, you will reduce crime,” he said. “But it’s also important to remember there are individuals out committing multiple crimes so that they can feed their habit and they have to pay for that behavior.”
When responding to someone who may be overdosing, police said medical attention takes priority.
Naloxone, which is a quick-acting antidote for overdoses, is used frequently to revive individuals, police said. Spurlock estimates Douglas County officers are having to use naloxone on a weekly basis.
Arrests are typically not made during these encounters, according to Englewood Sgt. Cousineau, so long as the individual overdosing has no more than a “personal use amount,” which is 1 gram of fentanyl — about 10 pills. The drug is usually confiscated and destroyed, Cousineau said.
“Part of it is compassion, we don’t want to put criminal charges on somebody who is in a state of distress,” he said.
Arrests can follow when an individual is found with more than one gram as well as when someone experiencing an overdose also commits other crimes in the process, such as causing a car accident, according to Cousineau.
But officers said they alone can’t always respond adequately to a situation. It’s why departments across the region, including Englewood, Littleton and Douglas County, have turned to co-responder programs to link police with trained clinicians when responding to certain calls, such as mental health concerns and drug use.
Officers said those trained professionals are able to better connect to, and build trust with, certain individuals in distress better than police can. Co-responders are also able to connect individuals with resources instead of jails, something DA Kellner said his office has also pursued.
The DA’s diversion program allows some people charged with drug possession to funnel into rehabilitation treatments that — if deemed successful — could see their cases dismissed or significantly reduced.
“This is not the justice system of the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Kellner said. “It’s an all-above approach that’s going to solve this problem.”
According to 18th Judicial District spokesperson Eric Ross, 104 cases have been referred to the program, with 28 successfully completed, Ross said data on "failures versus those that are still in process,” is not available.
However, that option remains limited because of the lack of programs or facilities in the region offering addiction services. Spurlock said Douglas County is reliant on partnerships with treatment programs or facilities in Denver.
But, for Raville, believing that law enforcement will be enough to wean the majority of individuals off drugs is fantasy thinking.
“People have been using drugs forever and ever and people will continue using drugs forever and ever,” Raville said.
Instead, Raville wants to see more honest conversation and education around drug use and how to be safe. She believes broad legalization, such as what has been done in Portland, Oregon, will create a safer supply for hard drugs that fentanyl will not be able to permeate.
“We have a safe supply in the United States right now, it’s called alcohol,” Raville said. “The United States has never done a good job of talking about drug use.”