Chasing a fix: Protecting addicts from themselves

Law enforcement agencies take steps to end an epidemic

Chasing a Fix: Protecting addicts from themselves

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) -

The State Police Crime lab in Baton Rouge processes evidence from agencies around the region. Cases involving heroin number in the hundreds any given month.

Overdose calls have become one of the most common calls paramedics receive.
Overdose calls have become one of the most common calls paramedics receive.
Inside the State Crime Lab in Baton Rouge
Inside the State Crime Lab in Baton Rouge

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid even more potent than heroin, is also becoming a common piece of evidence collected by law enforcement officers like Sergeant Lorenzo Coleman with Baton Rouge Police.

“We’re doing our part as far as the street level to try and get it out of the neighborhoods.”

Sgt. Coleman is part of the department’s street crime division. He says they’ve seen a steady rise in heroin since 2012. When fentanyl is involved, it adds yet another danger for the officers in his division.

“We had an officer who was just weighing it and he started feeling bad and he had to be transported to the hospital and he almost died,” he said.

Baton Rouge Police
Baton Rouge Police

Sgt. Coleman says a lot of the heroin they’ve seized traces back to New Orleans, although it’s not clear where it originated. Coleman says their mission is just one small piece of what has to be a larger effort to fight the epidemic that drives crime.

“We have to work together as a community. The community and police need to come together. We need to get together so we can resolve some of these issues. The police can’t do it by themselves. We need the community’s help to report strange activity. If you think someone is selling drugs, make a call so we can start an investigation. I think that’s the first step we need to take to rid this city of narcotics and violence,” said Sgt. Coleman.

BRPD Headquarters
BRPD Headquarters

But it may not be enough just to target the source of the drugs, something the Covington Police Department realized after a chilling 911 call.

CALLER: “F**k. Hello? Hello?”

911 DISPATCH: “911 what is your emergency?”

CALLER: “Hi, *** South Jefferson Apartment ***my husband is overdosing right now. I need an ambulance."

911 DISPATCH: “Ok. Ok. Stay on the line we getting some help on the way, ok?”

CALLER: “Holy sh**."

911 DISPATCH: “Um, what has he taken? What is he overdosing on?”

CALLER: "Oh my God, I think this is heroin.”

“What got me about this call was you could hear the kids crying in the background. You could hear and feel, or at least I could, this man dying on the telephone. Fortunately, he survived,” said Tim Lentz, Covington Police Chief.

Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz
Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz

“Officers were able to get there quickly along with EMS, give him some Narcan, transport him to the hospital. But our philosophy at that time, in 2014, was once he was discharged from the hospital, officers went there to arrest him. Then they went to back to the apartment, arrested his wife, called child protective services and had their kids taken away from them, put them both in jail. 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.”

“These people are sick. They have a disease. They’re not going to get what they need in jail.”

From that call, Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz began looking for a new way to tackle the heroin epidemic. He found it in Operation Angel, a program model where addicts can turn to police to find help without fear of persecution.

After getting every law enforcement agency in St. Tammany Parish on board, Operation Angel rolled out in 2016. Now anyone from anywhere can go to any agency in the parish and ask for help and that agency will find them a recovery program, with or without health insurance.

RELATED STORIES:

“Our first year, from May 2, 2016 to 2017 132 people walked into the law enforcement agency on the north shore saying I"m an addict, I need help,” said Chief Lentz.

He says in the years since, nearly half of those who sought help from his department have remained clean and sober. He’s also seen the crime rate in his town drop 22 percent.

“You take away the drug problem, you take away the crime problem.”

“Policing isn't that difficult. You take away the drug problem, you take away the crime problem. Here we've had a couple 100 people walk into law enforcement in St. Tammany. That's a couple 100 people that weren't committing crimes to support their habits.”

Meanwhile, the rate of deadly overdoses in other parts of the state continue to grow. Authorities in the New Orleans area reported more than 200 deadly drug overdoses in 2017. More than half were related to opioids. East Baton Rouge Parish saw more than 100 overdoses. 66 were due to opioids, a five year high.

“Each one of these numbers that we report it's not just a number, it's a human life that's no longer with us as a result of this disease and as a result of this epidemic,” said Dr. Beau Clark, EBR Coroner.

Dr. Beau Clark, EBR Coroner
Dr. Beau Clark, EBR Coroner

Dr. Clark has been on the front line of the epidemic for years, pointing out the alarming pattern of growing opioid deaths to anyone who will listen.

“We’re involved in an epidemic. It’s affecting our parish. It’s affecting our state. It’s affecting our country.”

“I think the numbers really speak that they’re increasing and that of course gives us concern that, are we at the peak yet? I think maybe we’re not and this is going to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Dr. Clark says the reality of finding a solution is complicated and costly and requires an effort from all sides of society.

“When we talk treatment and it costs money, and we’ve got to find that money somewhere, and not everybody may have the money to do it themselves, and that’s where the state has to step in.”

RELATED STORY: EBR files suit against major opioid manufacturers

Chasing a Fix is a WAFB original documentary airing Saturday, September 13 at 6:30 p.m. only on WAFB.

Copyright 2018 WAFB. All rights reserved.