Heroin, opioids discussed at Dorchester Chamber luncheon
CAMBRIDGE — Sixteen overdoses already this year in Dorchester County, and the main culprit is heroin and opioids.
Sheriff James Phillips, Cambridge Police Interim Chief Mark K. Lewis, Hurlock Police Chief Les Hutton and Dorchester County State’s Attorney William Jones met Wednesday with members of the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce at the Edward E. Watkins Public Safety Complex. While many topics were discussed, Sheriff Phillips opened the meeting by discussing the heroin and opioid epidemic.
“It seems to be the thing that’s on everybody’s mind is what’s going on with the heroin epidemic,” since Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on opioids March 1, Sheriff Phillips said.
The sheriff said Dorchester is “ahead of the curve,” compared to surrounding jurisdictions, because of the Dorchester County Drug and Alcohol Abuse Council that was formed in the 1990s and meets monthly.
“We all sit down at the same table over breakfast and we discuss the issue,” Sheriff Phillips said. “In law enforcement, it’s helped me … it allows us to look at things differently, instead of just focusing on law enforcement.”
He said the council has concluded that two programs to address drug use are needed in the county. A screen-in process and pre-release program were introduced at the Dorchester County Detention Center in the past and worked, but were eliminated when the Great Recession forced budget cuts.
Through the screen-in process, “what we discovered was that a lot of people that suffered from substance abuse have a corresponding mental health issue,” the sheriff said, “and that if you treat the mental health issue, the substance abuse issue goes away.”
Also, the sheriff would like to see people get peer support, counseling, and other support through a pre-release program, rather than, “just dumping them on the street.”
“We understand we cannot arrest our way out of this process,” Sheriff Phillips said. “We’ve got to work collectively as a group on treatment, support, prevention, and the other facets of it.”
Chief Hutton said he, Sheriff Phillips, Chief Lewis and Mr. Jones all worked together as young police in the county in the 1980s and 1990s. Mr. Jones was a police officer before becoming state’s attorney. At the time, crack cocaine was prevalent.
With crack, “we thought we had seen the worst,” Chief Hutton said. “I, in my life, I never thought I’d see it like this. Heroin is probably the worst I’ve ever seen. We didn’t lose people in the crack era like we’re losing now. …
“The demographics have really changed with heroin. You can’t say because I live in a nice neighborhood, that’s not going to affect me or my family because we’re seeing that it is. We’re seeing people addicted to heroin, or dying from heroin, coming from families where we didn’t think we’d see that. This has just changed everything. … It’s just incredible what we’re seeing.”
Mr. Jones said that business leaders can help by being mindful of their employees. Echoing Chief Hutton, the state’s attorney said the problem is widespread. According to Mr. Jones, in most cases he sees, opioid users find their way to heroin after legally obtaining prescription pain killers after car accidents, surgeries, sports injuries, etc.
“You as business leaders have to understand that any of your employees can find themselves in this situation, any of them. So, be thinking about that,” Mr. Jones said. “You can do your part in trying to be aware of that. If you start to see a problem, try to steer that person to help. … As business leaders, I assure you that this problem is either within your businesses or surrounding your businesses because it’s just everywhere.”
Mr. Jones said literature on substance use and how to find help is available through the county health department.
On another subject, Chief Lewis, who became interim chief less than two weeks ago, announced policing changes coming to downtown Cambridge. He said on Tuesday, police re-introduced downtown foot patrols. He asked business leaders to reach out to him, or his police who are beating the street, at any time.
“In June, I’m getting four new officers from the police academy,” Chief Lewis said. “Once I get those, I’ll have enough to staff what’s called our B1 district, which is our business district. We’ll have somebody downtown, Race, Poplar, Pine Street 24-7, 365. If there’s any issues, please let me know.”
Chief Lewis said he’ll soon be sending a community policing unit to all the businesses to do security surveys. The officers will check locks, lighting, security systems, alarms, and make recommendations on how to improve security.
All the officers and the state’s attorney said communication is key for good policing, community safety and better business.
“If you do anything at all for us, if you see something, call us,” Sheriff Phillips said. “We don’t mind getting calls. That’s what we’re here for.”