BERLIN — Local police hope steering drug users into rehabilitation rather than the criminal justice system can reduce the number of deaths related to opioids and heroin.
“We know we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem,” Police Chief John Klett said in a statement, adding the new initiative will give addicts “the opportunity to voluntarily seek assistance.””
Through a partnership with New Britain police, prosecutors, the Hospital of Central Connecticut, MidState Medical Center in Meriden and other local healthcare providers, officers can wave drug-related charges for those who agree to enter treatment. Prosecutors already have the ability to do this, but the initiative by New Britain and Berlin police would keep individuals caught with drugs out of the court system altogether.
“We’re trying to get them help,” Klett said.
Klett noted there were 14 opioid-related deaths in Berlin last year. Officers have administered nalaxone, which can reverse an overdose, 43 times since 2016.
“This is a problem which crosses all socioeconomic lines,” Klett said. “You have 20 year olds and 70 year olds.”
New Britain Police Chief James Wardwell said he hasn’t seen overdose deaths this high in his 25 years with the department, demonstrating a “critical need” for the new policy.
“We just do pray for the success of this initiative,” he said. “That we can reverse this trend of losing people to opioids.”
Jessica Collins, director of behavioral health services for the Hospital of Central Connecticut and MidState Medical Center, said patients will be evaluated to determine the best course of treatment.
Options include assigning a patient to a recovery coach, admitting them to therapy or inpatient rehabilitation, or prescribing suboxone, a drug intended to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings for opioids.
“It’s dropping those barriers to allow them to continue that path to recovery,” she said.
If addicts feel interactions with police can lead to better outcomes than an arrest, they are more likely to ask for help, Collins said.
During a press conference Monday at the New Britain Police Department, Steven Mikkanen, who said he had been addicted to opioids for roughly a decade, described feeling like he didn’t “deserve a good life anymore” after he was arrested three consecutive days in 2014. He was held in pretrial detention for four months before entering a treatment program.
"Everything involved with opioid use disorder for myself created so much guilt and shame, especially when it came to the legal involvement that I had,” he said. “And it just perpetuated the vicious cycle for me — I would get arrested, I would be released, I may or may not have gone to treatments.”
Now in school to become a drug and alcohol counselor, Mikkanen said his past arrests are creating legal barriers for him. He said he hopes this new approach will encourage addicts to get treatment without having to enter the criminal justice system.
"Finding that sense of purpose and meaning to move forward in life and feel good about myself is imperative for me to get rid of the guilt and shame associated with my past,” he said.