Police try new approach to stem drug addiction epidemic
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Courtney Nunnally scrolled on her phone in the back of the Richmond police SUV.
The fluorescent lights from the strip centers, gas stations and cheap motels lining Midlothian Turnpike shined through the tinted window, barely cutting the darkness that had already descended by 5:30 p.m. on the Wednesday before Christmas.
Officer Ben Frazer scanned the illuminated parking lots as he drove, looking for familiar faces.
Nunnally had been in the back of more police vehicles than she could count, many times on the way to jail and dreading the inevitable detox that would set in when she went too long without a heroin fix. It was like having the flu, only a hundred times worse.
But she has been clean for six years now, ever since she became pregnant and Richmond police Sgt. Frank Scarpa and Chesterfield County police Sgt. Matt Dunn had helped her get treatment that put her on the path to recovery.
Now, when Nunnally rides in the back of a police car, she’s working with the police as a peer recovery specialist, talking to people trapped in the throes of addiction about how to get help, and serving as living proof that getting clean is possible.
The initiative, which launched in October, is one of the first of its kind in Virginia as the state grapples with an opioid epidemic that has killed more people than gun violence every year since 2013, and as law enforcement agencies try to find their role when crime and the disease of addiction meet.
“Arresting and rearresting and arresting again is not really the (right) direction,” said Capt. Emmett Williams, commander of special investigations for the Richmond Police Department. “Substance abusers are out there doing their thing. They’re not receptive to talking to us. ... We’re still kind of the enemy to them.”
That’s where Nunnally comes in.
After a few years of being clean, Nunnally decided she wanted to use her own experience to help others. She started volunteering at the Chesterfield jail last year, working with heroin addicts to regain hope for their futures. Then, in April, she was hired as a police and court liaison for Recovery Unplugged, a drug addiction treatment center with facilities in Florida, Texas and Virginia.
But Nunnally wanted to do more.
Inspired by the Angel Program, an initiative started in 2015 by police in Gloucester, Mass., that guaranteed people with addiction problems immediate recovery assistance, Nunnally started her own nonprofit: Addiction Uncuffed.
Over the past several months, Nunnally worked with RPD leadership and secured permission to ride along with officers and offer the people they come in contact with a chance at recovery.
Frazer spotted someone he recognized as an opioid user sitting on the curb of the Taqueria Panchito on Midlothian Turnpike and pulled his vehicle into the parking lot of the crowded taco joint.
Nunnally, Frazer and his partner officer, Nick Odehnal, all filed out of the vehicle and approached the man, who sat with his knees pulled up under his heavily-tattooed arms.
Nunnally hung back for a moment as Frazer took the lead.
“Courtney’s riding with us tonight. You’ve talked to her before,” Frazer said.
Still hunched on the curb, the man told Courtney about how he’d been prescribed pills for back pain and had gotten addicted to fentanyl, the deadliest drug in the U.S. and responsible for half of the 1,538 fatal drug overdoses recorded by the Virginia Department of Health in 2017.
He talked about how he’d been cut off from his daughter and had alienated family members who’d tried to help him.
“I think I’m a lost cause,” he said.
“That doesn’t make you a lost cause,” Nunnally countered.
“I went through treatment three times.”
“I went through treatment eight times, at least,” Nunnally persisted.
“Look, man, tonight’s the night. I see you out here all the time,” Frazer jumped in. “You’re the type of people we want to help.”
“I gotta do it for my daughter,” the man acknowledged, looking down at the asphalt.
“How old is your daughter?” Nunnally asked.
“There’s still plenty of time with her ... don’t wait until she’s 13 and hates you,” Nunnally pushed.
She gave him her card with her cellphone number on it.
“I will gladly give you a call,” the man said with a smile.
Nunnally and the officers climbed into the SUV, and Frazer maneuvered it back onto the turnpike.
Nunnally pulled out a miniature notebook and wrote down the man’s name and relevant information so she could follow up with him.
“There’s a chance with that one,” Frazer said.
So far, Nunnally’s efforts have put five people through treatment programs. Four of them were still on track, as far as she knew. One was back on the streets.
Nunnally knows from experience that the road to recovery is rarely a straight one.
Between 40 and 60 percent of people recovering from substance use disorder relapse, which is similar to relapse rates for chronic illnesses such as hypertension and asthma, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
To further complicate the matter, resources for people recovering from substance use disorder are limited in the Richmond area, Nunnally said. She works with one detox center and a few recovery programs, but they are often full, forcing a person to go to an emergency department to detox. And even if Nunnally can get a person into an outpatient treatment program, it’s difficult to find affordable, safe housing.
“Your successes are going to be one at a time,” said Williams, the RPD captain. “One this month, one next month ... it’s just so hard to get people to buy into it — to want to move toward recovery. You’ve got to catch them right at the perfect time.”
When Nunnally, now 38, originally agreed to receive treatment by methadone, a medicine that blocks the effects of opiates — a standard step to protect the unborn child of a pregnant woman trying to get clean — she had no intention of staying clean. She figured she would go through the motions and eventually get back to the drug that had taken hold of her life.
But while she was in treatment, she started seeing a counselor. Then, her baby girl, River, was born. She began to make amends with her teenage son, Seth. Soon, she’d been clean a year, and then two years. By then, she’d made it too far to turn back.
She credits Scarpa and Dunn, the two police sergeants who gave her the push she needed at the right time, for the turn her life took. Nunnally is confident she wouldn’t be alive if fentanyl had been as prevalent when she was using as it is now.
“Some people need somebody to believe in them,” Nunnally said.
Somebody like Frazer, for example.
“You just can’t give up on these people,” he said as he drove up and down a short stretch of Midlothian Turnpike, where he has patrolled for the past 10 years. “I, personally, don’t think anybody is a lost cause.”
Frazer can name the people he sees hanging around the area known for its high rates of violent crime, drugs and prostitution, and he speaks to them with a combination of teasing humor and scolding.
Two years ago, the RPD formed the Violence Suppression Team, which was specially assigned to focus on reducing violent crime in the Midlothian neighborhood. In its first year, violent crime in the area dropped by 31 percent and dropped an additional 20 percent in 2018, according to RPD Capt. Christopher Gleason.
Nunnally’s presence adds another layer to the team’s attempts to clean up the neighborhood.
One of Williams’ goals is to team up with the Richmond Health District to hire a peer recovery specialist and expand outreach targeted at drug users who overdose repeatedly.
Law enforcement agencies across the state are piloting different approaches to addressing drug addiction, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and a member of Gov. Ralph Northam’s special task force on opioids. These approaches are often limited by available resources, and rural areas are less likely to have access to these kinds of programs than urban areas like Richmond.
Even as the programs develop, state leaders are still defining law enforcement officers’ role when they encounter drug users.
“We’d like to see people with substance abuse problems get the help they need to keep them from being involved in the criminal justice system,” Schrad said. But at the same time, “we can’t ignore the fact that it is illegal to traffic drugs.”
After a traffic stop and a break for burritos, Frazer and Odehnal returned to their nighttime patrol with Nunnally in tow, U-turning up and down the turnpike, searching license plate numbers for criminal hits and keeping an eye out for suspicious activity.
Frazer turned into the parking lot of the Regal Inn Motel, a tan, two-story building with glaring fluorescent lights and so many letters missing from the roadside sign meant to entice customers that the advertisement was incomprehensible.
The officers know this place well. Earlier that night in the same parking lot, they had arrested a man who had several outstanding warrants for shoplifting and drug offenses. They found a crack pipe in his car after he admitted he had something there.
Tears fell from the handcuffed man’s face as he leaned against the police car and waited for a van that would take him to jail.
Nunnally stood with him, bracing herself against the cold air and talking to him about treatment between drags from her e-cigarette.
Before he was taken away, she put her card in his sweatshirt pocket.
“Let me know,” she said.
Hours later, in the same parking lot, Frazer and Odehnal, upon questioning two men sitting in their car, found they had marijuana on them and one had an outstanding warrant.
As they waited for backup to take the one with the warrant to jail, Odehnal stood with the man while Nunnally and Frazer talked and joked with a woman staying at the motel.
When the woman’s three dogs ran out into the parking lot, Frazer dropped to his knees to play with them, jokingly trying to entice the pit bull to jump into the police car and patrol with him.
“If you don’t have fun in this job, you’ll go crazy,” Frazer had said earlier, by way of explaining his constant jokes and light tone.
Turning serious, Frazer pointed to a motel across the turnpike from the Regal Inn and said that he once saw a woman there who was turning blue as she overdosed. He and Odehnal broke her ribs trying to save her and administered four doses of Narcan, a drug that reverses an opioid overdose. A few days later, he saw her out looking for another fix.
It’s tough watching people succumb, over and over again. It’d be easy to give up on them. Understandable, even.
But then he thinks of Nunnally and remembers what’s possible.
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.richmond.com