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‘I wanted to go back to being clean,’ says heroin user helped by Chicago police program

Rather than being jailed, the 63-year-old man was diverted to treatment in an expanding program that’s reached hundreds of people.

A heroin buyer is arrested on the West Side in 2017.
A heroin buyer is arrested on the West Side in 2017.
Frank Main / Sun-Times

A 63-year-old west suburban man says he was lucky he never got arrested when he’d drive to Chicago to get high.

James — who agreed to speak only on the condition his real name not be used — says he drove to the city for decades to feed his heroin addiction.

But last summer he got caught. Officers spotted him buying three small bags worth $30. They swung their unmarked car in front of his Toyota Highlander and stopped him.

James says he didn’t have time to hide the drugs from the officer who walked up to his SUV.

“I just handed it to him,” he says. “I wanted to go back to being clean.”

He was arrested near Chicago and Homan avenues on the West Side. He always bought his morning snort of heroin from his trusted dealers there, then he’d go back to the suburbs to cut hair at the barbershop he owns. He commuted more than an hour to get his fix.

On that summer day, though, James was hauled to a police station and — to his surprise — placed in a drug-treatment program instead of going to the Cook County Jail.

He’s one of more than 250 people who’ve agreed to participate in the “narcotics arrest diversion program” the Chicago Police Department launched in the Harrison District in mid-2018.

It’s a novel way for the police to deal with people who don’t have convictions for violent crimes and who buy small amounts of drugs to feed their habits. The program is part of a larger effort by the city to deal with the massive opioid abuse problem here.

At least 1,151 people died last year in Cook County of overdoses from opioids like heroin, more than twice the deaths in Chicago from shootings, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of the problem,” says Antoinette Ursitti, a Chicago police lieutenant.

The program is expanding to three more districts — Ogden, Austin and Grand Central — where heroin dealing is prevalent and overdoses are common. It’s limited to people who’ve been arrested with a gram or less of cocaine or heroin.

People in the program have to be at least 18 and can’t have convictions for violent crimes, gun possession or sex offenses. If they enter treatment, the charges against them are dropped. But they get only one chance. The next time they’re arrested with drugs, they’ll go to jail.

James thought he was going to jail when he got arrested last summer. He remembers his astonishment at what the officer told him: “You don’t look like the type who belongs here. I am going to do you a favor and park your truck legally and not tow it.”

Then, according to James, the officer said, “There’s a program at the station, and when you get there, just say you want treatment.”

He did. Employees of Thresholds, a drug addiction-recovery agency, were waiting for him in a room they staff seven days a week, and he was approved to enter a drug-treatment program.

He says he and the worker took a ride-share to a Thresholds facility on the West Side where he spoke with a doctor. Since then, he’s been getting drug treatment and mental counseling.

“My head is all f----d up from using. You don’t think straight. You need help ironing things out.”

The results of the diversion program are promising, says Alexander Heaton of the University of Chicago Crime Lab. About 42% of the participants have stuck with their treatment for at least three months, says Heaton, who’s been monitoring the program. That might not sound like a lot, but it is for addicts, he says.

One of the goals is to get people into drug treatment for the first time, according to Heaton. About 20% of those in the program have never been in treatment before, he says.

Many participants in the program are from the West Side, where the Harrison District is.

Customers line up to buy heroin in the 3700 block of West Grenshaw in June 2015 in the Harrison District on the West Side.
Customers line up to buy heroin in the 3700 block of West Grenshaw in June 2015 in the Harrison District on the West Side.
U.S. attorney’s office

About six months after the program began in July 2018 in the district, the police began encouraging people to come to the station to sign up for treatment. Officers put up fliers, made pitches at community meetings and soon got their first volunteer walk-in participant.

“He came in and looked as confused as the folks at the desk,” Heaton says. “He said, ‘My mom says I have a heroin problem and should come in for some help.’”

Heaton says it’s possible 500 people or more could enter the department’s expanded diversion program this year.

Tim Devitt, vice president of clinical operations at Thresholds.
Tim Devitt, vice president of clinical operations at Thresholds.
University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration

Tim Devitt of Thresholds says people in the program are connected with services such as finding housing and jobs. “These are not services we provide where we break even.”

Thesholds was able to get some money for the program from grants, Devitt says. A law that former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed in 2018 — the Early Mental Health and Addictions Treatment Act — could bring more funding, he says.

To keep addicts from dying, officers in six police districts where overdoses are rampant have been getting training to administer Narcan, an overdose-reversal drug. They have administered Narcan about 180 times, according to Ursitti, who says, “This is saving lives.”

James, the recovering addict, says some of his cousins have died from overdoses. He says he’s quit several times over the past 30 years. “You’re sick five days to a week — muscle pain and discomfort and sweats.”

James says he traveled to St. Louis for treatment a few years ago and kicked his habit again. Then he went to a doctor for a “bad nerve problem” and got addicted to prescription drugs.

That led him back to the West Side and his familiar open-air heroin market. His addiction was financially draining, he says: “All the money you make goes to the Dope Man.”

Harrison District police station at Kedzie and Harrison.
Harrison District police station at Kezdie and Harrison.

He’s thankful that the officers arrested him but says others at the Harrison police station “were skeptical. One said, ‘Lock him up. He’s a f-----g bum.’ Another bitched about Thresholds taking up space there.”

Still, the officers who stopped his SUV last summer seemed truly concerned about getting him help, James says.

He says he plans visit the station again some day.

“I want to go back and thank them.”

The flier that’s being circulated on the West Side to let people know they can walk in to the Harrison District to get help for drug addiction.
The flier that’s being circulated on the West Side to let people know they can walk in to the Harrison District to get help for drug addiction.
Chicago Police Department