In response to the opioid epidemic, some police departments in North Carolina are taking a new, more holistic approach to dealing with low level drug offenders. Programs that offer an alternative to arrest are gaining traction in cities like Wilmington, Hickory and Fayetteville. The change is also taking hold in smaller communities.
Waynesville is a town of less than 10,000 residents nestled between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville. A little more than a decade ago, Police Chief Bill Hollingsed began to see his mountain community devastated by the impact of opioid addiction.
"Twenty-five percent of the people who died in our county were dying from opioid overdose 11 years ago," he recalled. "So, it hit us very hard, very early."
In response, Hollingsed and his department launched what's known as a LEAD program: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. It represents a fundamental shift in the way police handle low level drug crimes. Instead of arrest, non-violent drug users are redirected to a case manager who helps them get wrap-around care to address everything from housing and hunger to job training and medical treatment.
Melissia Larson coordinates LEAD programs across the state for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. She said the program's intensive and individualized case management is key to participants' success.
"Everyone's got their own journey," she said. "Some people need housing first before they can focus on other areas of their life; some have immediate health issues that need to be focused on first, and so we want to make sure that we have got that comprehensive package, if you will. Whatever their greatest need is in that moment in time, they'll have access to it."
Fayetteville became the first city in the Southeast to launch a LEAD program in 2016. Since then, four other North Carolina communities, including Waynesville, have followed suit, and at least four more towns or counties are exploring their options.
Larson said the Fayetteville program is already showing promising results.
"The arrest records and criminal justice activity has been very significantly decreased once somebody gets into the LEAD program," said Larson. "We've seen up to a 90 percent reduction in criminal activity from our LEAD participants."
The Waynesville LEAD program has been up and running for just six months, but Chief Hollingsed says he already sees a positive impact in his town. Officers spend less time dealing with repeat offenders, and those in need of treatment get faster access to long-term care.
Still, he warns there’s no quick fix for the epidemic of opioid addiction.
"When it comes to opioid treatment, it is not a 30 day, 60 day or even 90 day process," said Hollingsed. "Treatment for opioid addictions is really a lifelong commitment, and a year or more in treatment is really the norm."
LEAD pilot programs are currently funded through a mix of public and private sources. Both Hollingsed and Larson believe in the value of the new approach, and hope a combination of state, local and private donors can keep the programs going in the future.