It was a normal day, like any other in Jeffersontown, Ky. Then-chief Rick Sanders and his assistant chief were meeting when an overdose-death call came across the radio, probably one of dozens that day in a county ravaged by drug abuse and fatal overdoses. But as the details poured in, the heartbreak overtaking his assistant chief’s face told Sanders that this call wasn’t like the others.
The two took off Code 3 to the address precisely read by dispatchers but known by heart to the assistant chief – his daughter’s home. As they walked in the front door, his beautiful, 20-something daughter lay dead on her living room floor – the victim of a bad choice at a party the night before.
As Sanders stood numb and struggling to console his comrade, the girl’s mother came running to the door where he had to stop her because she was not yet allowed inside. He held her in his arms for what seemed like an eternity, as she wept and beat his chest with angry fists, screaming that she needed to hug her daughter. After the coroner officially established cause of death and left the scene, Sanders allowed the broken mother and wife to enter the living room and watched as she knelt beside her baby, cradled her limp body and held her for an hour, saying her last goodbyes into the unhearing ears of her daughter.
Scenes like this and countless others burned into now-Kentucky State Police Commissioner Sander’s memory have created a passion for tackling the plague of addiction and doing anything to help those caught in its scourge.
“I will never apologize for arresting people who need to be arrested – and there are plenty in society who need to be arrested,” Sanders said. “But there are many who have been duped or have made bad decisions and succumbed to addiction, and we’re going to get them into treatment. That’s what the Angel Initiative is all about.”
KSP is one of dozens of agencies nationwide and three in Kentucky to throw open its doors and invite in the broken, the dying – the addicts – to find help, restoration and treatment.
“The time for arguing is over,” Sanders said. “Who cares how they got addicted – whether it’s a disease or a choice? It doesn’t matter. We can’t keep putting people in jail for addiction who need help. We have to do a better job of helping people.”
Doing Something Different
On May 31, KSP launched its Angel Initiative at the Pikeville, Post 9 and Richmond, Post 7 locations. Originally created in the summer of 2015 by the Gloucester (Mass.) Police Department, the Angel Initiative allows drug users to turn in their illegal drugs. Then, instead of arresting the individuals on possession charges, the police department assigns an “angel” who helps users find and enter into treatment.
For Sanders, his biggest drive is to get drug addicts in these two post districts, and eventually the entire state, the treatment they need to head toward recovery before they enter the criminal-justice system, he said.
KSP Post 9 Commander Jennifer Sandlin is partnering with Operation UNITE at its Pikeville Post to ensure the Angel Initiative’s success. Once an addict walks into the Pikeville Post, either Sandlin, another trooper or a dispatcher welcomes them and begins an in-take form on the individual. The form gathers information about individuals, as well as what drugs they use, how often and whether they’ve previously been to treatment or detox of any kind, among numerous other details.
“If a person has a warrant when they walk in, we do have to deal with that, but if they have drugs or paraphernalia, we’ll take it and not charge them,” Sanders said. “Someone asked once, ‘What if someone walks in with a kilo of heroin?’ and I answered, ‘That’s a good day, because we got a kilo off the street and a person into treatment.’”
But two cultures have to change in order for this or any angel program to work, Sandlin said.
“We have to convince those in law enforcement that this is the right thing to do, and those who are addicted that they can trust the police,” she said.
For Sandlin, she said when Commissioner Sanders introduced the angel concept to her, she had a sharp learning curve as well.
“It was really a thought changer,” she said. “All I’ve ever known is arresting people and dealing with criminal activity, I’ve never been involved in treatment. In the past, my idea of treatment was putting someone in jail.”
Feeling the need to fully understand addiction from the addict’s perspective, Sandlin contacted a friend who is a recovering heroin addict. Through her friend, she gained useful insight and belief in the program’s goals.
“My friend told me, ‘If you have one person it works for, that has a multiplying effect because their family and kids aren’t suffering any more. They’re not involved in criminal activity, and the whole community benefits from that one person’s change.’”
Sandlin brought her friend into the Pikeville Post to tell troopers her story about how she got into drugs and eventually went through treatment.
“I knew I might meet resistance with troopers, not because they don’t want to help, but because it’s different than what they know,” Sandlin said. “It was important for them to see a win. To get on board, they had to see hope.”
Sandlin’s friend introduced her to treatment directors and helped get the ball rolling toward Sandlin developing an understanding of the way treatment centers function and who her partners and supporters would be. Her biggest asset, Operation UNITE, is the main source for the Pikeville Post’s angel volunteers and treatment placement facilitators, Sandlin said.
However, Sanders is adamant this initiative in no way gives drug dealers and traffickers a free pass.
“Rick Sanders is not getting soft, he’s getting smart,” Sanders said, looking back at his 40-year law enforcement career. “We have to aggressively deal with traffickers, but we want to help those who are addicted before they get into the criminal-justice system.”
KSP is not the first agency in the state to tackle addiction through the Angel Initiative. Sanders first introduced the idea in Jeffersontown. But it was Sgt. Brittney Garrett who took that idea and ran with it – crafting Kentucky’s first Angel Initiative at the Jeffersontown Police Department.
Located in a county that experienced 695 overdoses this past January alone, Jeffersontown was poised to meet a growing problem head on when it launched the Angel Initiative.
“We didn’t know what this was supposed to look like, but we knew what we wanted to accomplish and that’s to save lives,” Garrett said about the program’s beginnings. “So whatever we can do to get to that end, that’s what we’re figuring out.”
And figure it out they have - placing more than 45 people, desperate for help, into treatment since August 2016.
Each case is a learning opportunity for Garrett, who is learning the ins and outs of treatment options, facility types and patient criteria for acceptance. Working alongside countless supporters, volunteers and professionals, like Dr. Bud Newman who is semi-retired from the Morton Center in Louisville, one thing Garrett is committed to is immediate placement of individuals who come to JPD seeking assistance.
“I want somebody to go to treatment that day or chances are I’ll lose them if they don’t have the support system,” Newman said. “So, I want them someplace that day. If I can’t do that, it scares me.”
That immediate action is imperative to the success of angel programs.
“They have to be guaranteed a bed,” Sanders agreed. “You can’t turn them away and say come back in two months or even two days.”
Operation UNITE’s Treatment and Education Director Debbie Trusty couldn’t agree more.
“This initiative can be effective because it comes at a time when they are ready for help,” she said. “This program can’t exist without treatment facilities’ willingness to help.”
Building relationships with the surrounding treatment facilities and being prepared with multiple placement options is an absolute must, but can be a difficult and time-consuming process, especially in areas like Jeffersontown, Alexandria and Pikeville that are so close to other jurisdictions and state borders.
Just ask Garrett about Kasey.
Kasey was one of the earliest Angel Initiative participants. At 35 years old, Kasey finally had reached rock bottom. Having started smoking marijuana at 14, Kasey had lived a life of drug use and addiction that spiraled out of control. She found herself a meth addict, in a toxic marriage to a fellow addict, having her daughter taken from her and staying anywhere she could lay her head at night. She even slept in a storage unit to stay warm and dry before cameras spotted her and forced her back on the street.
“I remember those doors feeling like they weighed 1,000 pounds,” Kasey said of the struggle to turn to a police department for help. “I was scared and petrified. I was homeless, jobless and lost in the madness of my addiction. It was very scary. But it’s the greatest thing when you admit you’re powerless over addiction and can’t function like a normal human being.”
Kasey came to JPD from across the river in Indiana where she struggled to find the help she desperately needed. But being out of state, with Indiana Medicaid and being on meth, not an opioid, made it very difficult for Garrett to find Kasey a place for treatment.
“Everyone is unique when they walk through the door, whether it’s insurance or what they’ve used – but they just want to find an open door no matter the situation,” Garrett said. “It was a hurdle early on knowing about different criteria. [Kasey] was a guinea pig in a way, but we were able to connect the dots and get her in a place that was well suited for her.”
“Even though one didn’t work, another [facility] did,” Kasey said. “And Brittney just kept going down the list. I had hit brick walls on my own and she was able to get through that.”
Angels on Your Side
Kasey, who beamed as she claimed 231 days clean and sober as of April 17, is just one example of dozens of individual lives being changed across Kentucky by police departments partnering with angels in their community. Just seven months ago, the Alexandria Police Department kicked off its Angel Initiative, and in that time Cody, Ryan, Kendra, Jenna, Chris and Brandon have been added to the growing list of treated addicts on their way to restoration.
Alexandria, having looked at several programs to answer the rampant addiction crisis sweeping northern Kentucky, chose to merge parts of the angel program with another program and place it in the hands of its new police social worker, Kelly Pompilio, last fall. Her role sets Alexandria’s program apart from KSP’s or Jeffersontown’s because she doesn’t wait for addicts to come to her.
“I respond to every overdose that happens in our community,” Pompilio said.
If she’s not on scene, the responding officer will give the revived individual an angel card and Pompilio will follow up the next day, she said. She has followed up with at least 24 people since the program’s inception.
Alexandria has a community organization that meets the first Monday of every month, and they receive referrals for people who could benefit from the Angel Initiative. This also is where they conduct trainings and listen to the struggles and successes of their angel volunteers.
“Most angel volunteers have been affected in some way (by addiction or overdose,)” Pompilio said. “Most are family members who have lost a loved one or individuals who have battled addiction themselves and won.”
Christina Weinel, who also volunteers with the attorney general’s Heroin Education Action Team and at her local church, said she feels a gravitational pull to the Angel Initiative after losing her son to sepsis as a direct result of intravenous drug use.
“I feel compelled to help - how can I not?” she said. “It’s not my job to judge, but to help them where they are.”
Pompilio said having angels present when addicts are with her seeking help is the key to getting them into treatment. Where she faces barriers as a professional social worker, angels are able to walk alongside individuals from the moment they meet, through the highs and lows of the treatment process, and arguably most important, in the weeks and months after treatment, as individuals learn to live in recovery.
Angels have fielded three to four phone calls a day from someone struggling in their detox center and wanting to leave. They have taken someone out to dinner or to the swimming pool, just to get them out doing something, away from old friends and places that lured them into addiction in the first place. Angels play an indispensable role that officers, and even Pompilio, cannot play in the lives of recovering addicts, Pompilio said.
“You have to change your people, places and friends,” said Jeffersontown’s Kasey. “The biggest thing is once someone gets their head clear, it’s a lot easier to see the pros and cons of addiction. I never would have experienced that if it wasn’t for what I went through – she (Garrett) is my angel.”
Garrett sees success stories like Kasey’s, and it drives her push for continued cultural change in the police community to find a new way to fight this battle.
“We have begun to humanize the disease, and the addicts have humanized our profession,” Garrett said. “There is no negative to helping someone get into treatment - it’s all positive. Why would you not start a program like this?”
“The Angel Initiative is great,” Kasey added. “I know [Garrett] is busy, but she still manages to take time out of her schedule to keep up with how I’m doing. And if she can’t, she gives my number to another officer who can connect with me.
“I would be lost,” she emphasized, “if I didn’t have this program.”
The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative was started to support local police departments as they work with opioid addicts to seek treatment, rather than attempt to arrest their way out of the drug-addiction problem. The PAARI website has information for police departments looking to partner in the initiative as well as resources for creating programs within the local communities.