ST. TAMMANY PARISH, LA (WAFB) - A chilling call to 911 in Covington changed the course of every law enforcement agency in St. Tammany Parish.
On the line was a woman, barely able to speak through her panic. She told the 911 operator her husband was overdosing from heroin on the floor. Their child was crying in the background.
The operator calmly assured the woman paramedics were on their way, and talked the caller through CPR. Over the course of seven minutes, the man's strained breathing can be heard, coming in spurts like choked snoring.
Thanks to the efforts of paramedics, who arrived less than ten minutes after the call, the man survived. He was taken to the hospital, but his ordeal was just beginning.
"Our philosophy at that time, in 2014, was once he was discharged from the hospital, officers went there to arrest him," explained Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz. "At the end of the day, I'm reading the report, I'm listening to the 911 call, and I'm asking myself what in the hell did I accomplish?"
Lentz says the charges against the man who overdosed were eventually d ropped.
That 911 call was the start of a major shift for law enforcement in St. Tammany Parish, one of offering help to those addicted to drugs instead of handcuffs. After the call, the Covington Police Chief began researching an alternative to sending addicts to jail, where he believed they could not get the help they needed. He found a program called Operation Angel in Gloucester, Massachusetts and decided it could work in St. Tammany Parish.
In May of 2016, law enforcement, city, and parish leaders in St. Tammany Parish stood together to launch their own Operation Angel. Any time of day, an addict can walk into any police station or sheriff's office in St. Tammany and ask for help. Then officers will facilitate their first step into recovery.
"Our first year 132 people walked into the law enforcement agency on the North Shore saying, 'I'm an addict, I need help,'" said Lentz.
One of those people was Melissa Messina, a college grad and mom of two. Messina fell into addiction around the age of 30 after her relationship with her children's father ended. She says it wasn't long before she was hooked on crack cocaine, and used on and off for nearly a decade. "It just took me to a place that, unfortunately, I didn't care about my kids, didn't care about my work, didn't care about myself, didn't care about anything," said Messina. "I always fought it, but I would relapse."
Messina says she was stopped by officers several times while trying to buy drugs, and each time, they would tell her about Operation Angel. Eventually, she relented and went in. "We went to the police station and they were amazing. They were absolutely amazing," said Messina.
Through Operation Angel, Messina was placed in a facility in Baton Rouge and later into a sober living home. Now, she's been clean 18 months and even started a sober living home for women in Covington, helping others work towards recovery. "Everything happens for a reason in God's world and Operation Angel just saved my life," said Messina.
"They're making a change. They're productive members of society. We as taxpayers now aren't providing them for their incarceration expenses," said Lentz.
In addition to helping people with addiction, the Covington police chief says crime rates in his town have d ropped, 14 percent in 2016 and 22 percent in 2017. "You take away the drug problem, you take away the crime problem," said Lentz.
Lentz says he hopes programs like Operation Angel spread across jurisdictions, but admits it's challenging for law enforcement to shift its philosophy. However, he says at the end of the day, it's about helping people who need it. "They get another opportunity at life. They're not criminals. These are good people who made mistakes. They need help instead of handcuffs," said Lentz.
Operation Angel is available through any St. Tammany Parish law enforcement agency. For more information, contact the Covington Police Department at 985-892-8500.
Other local addiction and rehabilitation resources are available here: