Ohio Police Change Approach On Addiction: People Need Help, Not Jail

By Kelly Burch 10/25/17

The Lucas County Drug Abuse Response Team has helped 2,400 overdose victims connect with detox over a three-year period.

Deputy Charles Johnson
Deputy Charles Johnson is one of the members of the Drug Abuse Response Team Photo via CNN

When Deputy Charles Johnson became a police officer 22 years ago, he never imagined that he would be spending his days in plain clothes, driving heroin users to detox, helping them get a job and referring to them as his clients. But as the opioid epidemic ravages Ohio, Johnson’s department is trying a different response when it comes to drug users. 

"I let them know there's a chance. You have hope,” Johnson told ABC 15 News

Johnson and seven other officers are part of the Drug Abuse Response Team (DART) at the Lucas County Sheriff's Office. The three-year-old program has helped 2,400 overdose victims connect with detox, a level of success so profound that the state recently gave $3 million in grants so that other law enforcement agencies can set up a DART response of their own. 

Sheriff John Tharp started the DART program when he noticed that opioid addiction was affecting all types of people. 

"I saw clean-cut-looking young people writhing on the floor, screaming and vomiting and urinating on themselves," he said. "It could have been any of our relatives or children.”

The sheriff’s department was arresting the same people again and again, to no avail. Tharp realized that he needed a different approach. "I realized we weren't going to arrest our way out of this epidemic," he said.

Despite his years working on the narcotics and vice squads, Tharp realized that the traditional approach to drug use was outdated. 

"In my view, addiction is not so much a crime as a disease," he explained. "None of these people would ever say 'I want to be a heroin addict. I love being a heroin addict.' They would say, 'I'm sick. I'm ill.' I don't have any reservations helping sick people at all. We don't lock people up for having cancer. We help them.”

Now, the DART team serves about 18 people a week in Lucas County. About 80% of the people who interact with DART go to detox, and researchers at the University of Toledo are studying how many get into long-term sobriety. Tharp said that even officers who were skeptical at first have become convinced of the program’s merits. 

"A lot of my peers said, 'John, you didn't stick that needle in their arm. Why should you pull it out?' But then some of those same people started changing their minds because they had a family member die. It took about a year or so, but they came around,” said Tharp.

Johnson said that the program aims to build trust with drug users in order to get them into treatment. 

"Once you lose that trust in anybody, addicts especially, they're gone, and you can't get that back," he said. "Our success comes from the relationships we build."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.