DIXON, Ill. – Katelynn Lahman had just fired a shot of heroin into her arm when she decided to call her hometown’s chief of police.
Lahman, 20, had been on heroin for nine months, funding her habit with petty crimes. She finally decided to seek help, she said, but couldn’t find a place that would take her.
“[The police chief] was like, ‘What if I tell you I can get you into a detox tomorrow morning?’ ” Lahman said. “I said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ So literally, 8 o’clock in the morning, I go to detox because [police] show up.”
So began this small town’s radical reimagining of how police can best fight the growing scourge of heroin addiction. Following a model created in Gloucester, Mass., Dixon cops fast-track a user into treatment if he or she comes to them asking for help. They’ll even dispose of the person’s drugs or paraphernalia without pressing charges for possession.
So far about two dozen people in Dixon and surrounding Lee County have taken the offer since late August. Police Chief Danny Langloss said the results have been mixed, and that he expects many of those who enter treatment with the help of police to relapse.
But he said that won’t affect his department’s willingness to continue to help those in the grip of addiction.
“They’re a person,” he said. “They just need help. And what we’ve done for years hasn’t helped.”
Dixon, a city of 15,000 about 100 miles west of downtown Chicago, is best known as Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home. But like many small communities, it is dealing with an escalating heroin crisis as the widespread abuse of prescription painkillers has led some to seek a cheaper and even more powerful opiate.
The problem in Dixon reached a dreadful peak in February, when three people died of overdoses within two weeks. Residents and government officials met to devise a response, which included a well-attended public forum on heroin, a hot line for people seeking treatment and sessions to train people in the use of naloxone, an overdose-stopping medication.
But the boldest step came when Langloss and Lee County Sheriff John Simonton decided it was time for law enforcement to try an approach developed by Gloucester police Chief Leonard Campanello. He announced in May that people who brought their drugs and needles to the police station and asked for help would immediately be ushered into treatment at a local rehab facility.
Since then, Campanello says, 260 people have gone through the program.
“This is not something we can arrest our way out of,” he said. “Addiction is not a crime, it’s a disease, and police can be a voice to facilitate treatment for people who are suffering.”
The idea has spread rapidly on the East Coast, but Dixon and Lee County appear to be Illinois’ first adopters. Their program works like this:
An addict who comes to the police station asking for help can turn in his or her drugs and paraphernalia without being charged. Police then call volunteers — some former drug users themselves — known as Safe Passage guides, and those volunteers come to the station to help explain the program and fill out an intake form.
Once that’s done, two volunteers drive the addict to one of several rehab facilities that have agreed to give priority to people coming from Dixon and Lee County. The entire process takes as little as two hours, compared with wait times that often last for months for uninsured people trying to get into treatment on their own.
Alison White, 25, is one of those Safe Passage guides. Clean for four years from a crack and heroin habit, she said she understands the fear and wariness of those reaching out for help and often answers questions on the ride to rehab.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen change is that addicts are seeing someone cares about them,” she said. “They feel they’ve burned every bridge, no one cares. The cops are starting to care, and that’s a strange thing. It’s a strange thing for me, too.”