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Police in Illinois Are Helping Substance Abusers Get Into Rehab Instead of Arresting Them

4 seated, unhappy-looking young people look at woman in jacket and glasses holding a clipboard who faces them. Man on far left in dark hoodie, jeans gestures to her.

DIXON, Illinois — Ronald Reagan didn’t start the war on drugs but he did his best to finish it. Law enforcement budgets soared, the jails were packed and the war was carried as far afield as Latin America and Afghanistan.

So it might count as one of history’s minor ironies that here in Dixon, just a few blocks from Reagan’s boyhood home, the local police have called a ceasefire in the war on drugs.

“We’re changing the way law enforcement views addiction — to see it as a disease, not a crime,” said Dixon Police Detective Jeff Ragan.

Three years ago, after three young people died of overdoses over 10 days, Dixon became one of the first police departments in the country to stop jailing addicts and start getting them help. Under a program Dixon calls “Safe Passage,” the police department here and in nearby towns are allowing addicts to bring in their drugs, no question asked, and they’ll help them check into a rehab center. At least 267 people have gone through the program, Ragan said.

“We try not to turn anybody away,” he said.

It’s still early in the process, but among the side benefits of Safe Passage are that Dixon police contacts with juveniles have plummeted — from 127 in 2015, when Safe Passage launched, to 95 last year, Ragan said. The program has since spread to 100 other police departments in Illinois and 300 in the country. Dixon was the second police department to try it, after police in Gloucester, Massachusetts launched PAARI — the police-assisted addiction and recovery initiative.

It’s an approach that’s long overdue, said Natalie Andrews, a licensed clinical social worker who sits on the Safe Passage task force with Ragan. “This is a public health crisis,” she said. “It’s a public health epidemic.”

Effects of drug crisis

Dixon Police Detective Jeff Ragan (headshot), smiling man in police uniform kneeling in front of police car with left hand on dog’s chest.

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Dixon Police Detective Jeff Ragan

Between 2010 and 2015, overdose deaths rose by more than 108 percent in Dixon’s Lee County. In neighboring Whiteside County, just 10 minutes up Route 2 from Dixon, overdoses rose by 361 percent over the same period, state public health data show. Like most places in the country, the damage has fallen heavily on youths: Drug overdose deaths among Americans 15 to 24 rose by 28 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to federal data.

That’s just one aspect of the disaster. The opioid crisis has strained the entire fabric of rural areas like Dixon, Andrews said. (The foster care system, for instance, has been flooded with youths whose parents have been crippled by addiction.) Helping people kick their addiction is really only the first step, Andrews say.

Many of the people recovering from addiction started their habits as teens and represent a kind of lost generation. Andrews finds herself working with recovering addicts on basic adulthood skills — resume writing, the basics of healthy, intimate relationships with partners, time management.

Results

As for why juvenile contacts in Dixon have dropped so quickly, Ragan said he’s not sure. He’s open to the possibility that it’s unrelated to Safe Passage. But the program has already been a success by any measure, he adds. Residential burglaries and retail thefts have dropped, as have drug arrests.

“It’s helping a lot of people. We’re trying to get people back into the community,” Ragan said. “It takes less time to put somebody in Safe Passage and to get them, hopefully, back on the right track compared to arresting them over and over again, doing the paperwork, going to court. If we can not arrest someone and help them, that’s what we’re going to do.”

There has been some on-the-job learning, though. Many of the people who’ve gone through Safe Passage have had to come back — some multiple times, Ragan said, adding that it’s difficult to keep track of people once they check into rehab. The program has just won a state grant to hire five, part-time rehab coaches, in the hopes that they’ll help close the gap on the back end, he said.

Among Safe Passage’s other unintended consequences, Ragan said, is a new way for cops to take pride in their work.

“When officers see someone stick with it and become a part of the community again, it just makes me feel good,” he said.

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