Helping Addicts Into Treatment

Instead of arresting drug addicts, the Chatham Police Department offers their assistance - and a School of Public Health Professor finds that it's working.

Left to right: Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann, School of Public Health Professor Tomoko Udo, and MPH student Brynn Lape. Lape and undergraduate student Emily Bruce (not pictured) have been working with Udo as part of her partnership with the Chatham Police Department.

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 10, 2018) – A partnership between a University at Albany School of Public Health professor and a local police department indicates that police-led programs to connect opioid users with resources rather than arresting them could result in more addicts entering treatment facilities.

The opioid epidemic is gripping the nation. In 2016, drug overdose became the leading cause of death for U.S. adults under 50 years old, with over 60 percent of the overdoses attributed to opioids, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts believe young adults in rural areas are affected at disproportionately high rates.

In response to the growing epidemic, the Chatham Police Department launched in 2016 “Chatham Cares 4 U (CC4U)” a police-led referral program that encourages residents struggling with substance abuse to go to the police station, turn over their drugs and ask for help – no questions asked. In return, police officers in the small upstate New York village help addicts get placed into drug treatment programs, obtain the insurance necessary to cover it, and transport them there.

“Addiction is a public health crisis, not a criminal justice crisis, and I was tired of people dying and no one doing anything about it except hosting forums and meetings.” said Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann. “Sometimes all an addict needs is a person willing to lend a hand and say, ‘I’ll help you’ and that’s exactly what this program does.”

But does the program, based on a national model, work?

According to Tomoko Udo, associate professor of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, early findings suggest that the answer is “yes.”

Volkmann enlisted Udo’s expertise to help improve the department’s data collection and to process the data. Together Udo and Volkmann developed an online intake assessment form and Udo analyzed the initial results. Between July 2016 and December 2017:

  • 140 individuals completed the intake assessment conducted by the Chatham police officers, with a comparatively higher number of women and young adults.
  • 83 percent of those who completed the intake assessment accepted the referral to treatment with 86 percent placed in treatment within 24 hours.
  • More than half of those in the program reported they had been denied treatment in the past.
  • Chatham police officers transported 69 percent of participants to treatment at an average distance of 50 miles.

Udo says that besides denial of having a substance abuse problem or a lack of readiness to quit, common reasons that addicts don’t seek treatment include: absence of, or inadequate insurance coverage; fear of social stigmatization; not knowing where to go; and a lack of transportation. Though Volkmann notes that some addicts used to worry that the program was a trap, he says the word is getting out to Chatham residents that “the police station is in fact a safe place to get help.”

Udo, who is being awarded a 2018 President’s Award for Exemplary Public Engagement for her work with the program, plans to do more in-depth research about CC4U’s effectiveness, but for now, she calls it a success.

“The data suggests that CC4U, and perhaps other programs like it, are successful in achieving the goal of providing immediate access to substance abuse treatment by addressing common barriers,” said Udo. “It’s also worth noting that this program may encourage women and young adults, who are historically less likely to seek substance abuse treatment, to pursue the help they need.”

CC4U is currently supported only by the faith-based community in Chatham, and Volkmann says he has officers who are volunteering their time.

“I have officers who know we can’t afford it, but they also see firsthand that there’s a critical need that they can help meet.”

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