Addiction and criminal behavior very often go hand in hand. Not only is the possession and/or use of certain substances illegal, but drugs are expensive. When active drug use gets in the way of holding down a job, and the addicted person has burned all his bridges with stable friends and family, often his only recourse to get more of his drug of choice is to engage in criminal activity.
For this reason, addicts and police officers have a unique relationship. Longtime addicts who don’t connect with treatment will often find themselves repeatedly on the wrong side of the law. Multiple arrests, stints in jail or prison, and repeat audiences with a judge are often par for the course, and the arresting officers may get to know addicts in their town on a personal level.
Though this is almost never a friendly connection, it’s not always adversarial, either. It’s often law enforcement that is first called to the scene when a person overdoses, and addicts may be the victims of crimes and in need of officers’ assistance almost as often as they are the perpetrator.
Robert Denton was a police officer in Los Angeles for 18 years, then spent three years working for the County of Los Angeles Probation Department. He says that police officers have a unique view of how drugs can change a person: “You see a guy one day, getting arrested for possession or selling and then you see the guy a few months later, and a few months after that, and he’s like a different person every time. His face is different. He’s lost a lot of weight. He’s got scars, or he’s sick. And he doesn’t remember you because he’s seen a dozen other uniforms since then and they all look the same. He probably doesn’t even remember getting arrested half the time.”
Denton says that police officers often come off as callous or unfeeling to the addicted person, but that’s not always the reality.
“Don’t get me wrong: not everyone’s a nice guy. There are plenty of guys and women on the force – they take a hard line when it comes to someone on drugs, someone who’s high. They’ve been stabbed or shot or seen people die or what people can do to their own families [when they’re addicted to drugs] and [they know that] it’s a life or death thing. There’s no room for a soft touch [on the street]. But at the end of the day, you see a young woman, a junkie, dead of an overdose or because her boyfriend beat her up – she’s a mother, little kids, sometimes – it’s a heart wrencher. It’s a tough job. And it happens. It happens a lot.”
Small Town, Big Addiction
The experience of police officers working with addicts in rural locations is a little bit different than what the big city cops encounter on a regular basis. One deputy who prefers to remain anonymous has been working for the sheriff’s department in rural Iowa for 15 years. “We don’t get a lot of dead bodies around here, but it does happen. I’ve been on a few calls myself, but in our county, it’s a few times a year, not every day.”
She remembers her first call on a drug overdose: “He was just a kid, high school aged. He had been drinking with some friends and took some pills, decided to smoke some weed on top of it. All his friends had been doing the same thing, but for whatever reason, he took a little bit more or his body just couldn’t handle it. He went to sleep and didn’t wake up. Not a bad kid – bad choices, bad luck.”
The deputy says that despite the large area that her department serves, it doesn’t take long to get to know who’s who among addicts in nearby communities.
She said: “We get calls because they’re shooting guns where they shouldn’t be, hunting where they shouldn’t be, or they got in a fight with someone or wrecked a car. Usually, they were high when it happened or drunk and still are when we get there. Most of the calls that we get that are drug-related are like that: someone who is drunk or stoned does something they shouldn’t and we have to come in. I’d say more than half the time it’s a domestic issue that precipitates the call.”
The deputy says that repeat offenders in her area are usually drinking or using drugs. Drug possession, driving under the influence, domestic violence, petty theft – these are all common charges and very often related to the use of drugs. She says that over the years, the toll ongoing drug use takes on the person is highly evident. Outside of the deaths she sees caused by drunk drivers, the highest number of drug-related deaths in her experience are middle aged or older people who die due to health problems caused by long-term drug use.
The deputy says that the effects of drinking and drug use on the people around the addicted person are some of the most difficult issues for her to handle, especially when those harmed are children. She says that even when it’s clear that both parents or caregivers are active addicts, it can be difficult legally to relocate the children to a safer and healthier living situation for the long-term: “[The children] need to be removed from the situation for their own safety, but they don’t want to go and they’re scared for their parents. It’s not easy to see them suffering because of their parents’ [choices], knowing there’s not much you can do but get them out of there for a few hours.”
Law Enforcement and Recovery
Cleaning up the consequences of choices made under the influence often falls to law enforcement – in large towns and small. The report made by the officer can help to determine whether or not the offender is eligible for inclusion in local drug courts, which would connect them with treatment for drug abuse or addiction rather than subject them to incarceration.
Not every addicted person who commits a crime will be able to go to drug court. If his crimes are violent in nature, then he will likely face jail time, but if he commits petty crimes that harm no one physically, and it’s clear that those choices were made due to his addiction, then drug court may be an option. The police officer on the scene at the time of arrest will make notes that can help the courts determine what is appropriate.
Denton has had the benefit of working with addicts on the street and then working with them on the other side of a jail or prison sentence. He says that in some ways, it’s harder emotionally to be a probation or parole officer because you develop a relationship with the person and want them to do well on a personal level.
Says Denton: “You can find yourself getting hopeful, like, ‘Hey, maybe this guy will do it. Maybe this guy will make it.’ They aren’t this emotionless person who’s out of his mind on substances. They’re sober, they’re contrite, they’re trying. A lot of times, you meet the guy’s family, his kids. You start to see what he has to lose if he goes back to jail but, a lot of the time, that’s exactly what happens. Sometimes it happens right away, sometimes a few months.
“But it’s not easy to start completely over – especially when you’ve got years and years in that life [of addiction]. They run into their friends or they’ve got family who are still living that life and they have money problems and pretty soon they stop showing up for their appointments and you don’t know what happened to them and then you find out they’re back inside.”
Though Denton says that, as a parole officer and even as a police officer arriving on the scene of a call, law enforcement does what they can to help connect the person with the services they need to make this time in their lives a thing of the past, but they are limited in the amount of good they can do.
“I can give a guy the phone number to a dozen different nonprofits around here that are set up to do nothing but connect guys who are out of jail with treatment, with jobs, with clothes for interviews – whatever they need – but if they don’t call, then it’s not going to make a bit of difference,” says Denton.
For some people, however, Denton says these little gestures on the part of law enforcement make all the difference in the world.
“I remember one guy, he was coming off of eight years in lockup and I hooked him up with [a nonprofit] that offers convicts an internship on a construction site. He was strung out on heroin when he went in, but he detoxed while he was inside, did some groups, hooked up with treatment when he got out, went to meetings. But he went to [the nonprofit], got the internship, got the job, stayed with it. Clean drug tests for 18 months, got married, settled down – he wrapped up his parole and I haven’t heard of him since, which is a best-case scenario in this job. I wish it happened like that for more of them.”
For many people living with an active addiction, getting arrested for driving under the influence, drug possession, or another drug-related charge is the wakeup call they need to make changes in their lives. In counties where drug courts are available, they may be able to connect with the treatment they need via court order, but in other cases, it may be necessary to take independent steps to find the right rehab program for their needs.