Police chief Peter Volkmann of Chatham, New York, where a sharp rise in opioid deaths spurred a unique approach to community policing.
Police chief Peter Volkmann of Chatham, New York, where a sharp rise in opioid deaths spurred a unique approach to community policing. Danny Beard, Fusion Media Group

In tiny Chatham, New York, police chief Peter Volkmann turned the town’s cops into drug treatment counselors.

Peter Volkmann, the police chief of the small upstate New York town of Chatham, has a radical strategy for policing the American opioid epidemic: He doesn’t.

Instead, he invites addicts to come to his office, turn over their drugs, and ask for help. He then makes sure they get the medical assistance they need to detox, and enroll in rehab programs so they can eventually stop using all together. “We’re not going to arrest you for possession—we’re going to help you,” Volkmann says in a new video about the program, produced by Fusion. “Treatment is [the] best option for recovery. We’re going to help one person at a time, one day at a time. That’s our strategic plan.”

Volkmann launched the program, called Chatham Cares 4 U (or CC4U), in the summer of 2016, as he watched the growing opioid epidemic ravage the region, which is located just south of Albany. Columbia County, home to about 60,000 people, has seen a 227 percent increase in opioid-related deaths in the last ten years, according to the Healthy Capital District Initiative. “Everyone here knows somebody that’s struggling with an addiction,” says Volkmann, who has a master’s degree in social work and is himself in long-term recovery from alcoholism. “We can’t arrest our way out of this; it’s just impossible.”

The dimensions of the American opioid epidemic continue to make headlines and fuel political debate. This week, President Donald Trump, who recently unveiled a plan to address opioid abuse, launched a website devoted the topic, and the surgeon general just issued a rare public health advisory urging all Americans to carry the overdose treatment drug nalaxone. About 175 people in the U.S. die from opioid-related reasons every day. “This is no longer just an inner-city problem, as it was during the heroin epidemic of the 1960s and 1970s,” as CityLab’s Richard Florida wrote in a recent post on the wide-ranging geography of the epidemic. “Today, opioid use has spread to small towns, suburbs, and rural areas.”

Volkmann’s program in Chatham, which has a little more than 4,000 residents, is a particularly dramatic example of community policing principles employed on a small-town scale: Working with a small team of 24 part-time officers, plus several community volunteers, CC4U has so far helped connect more than 170 residents with treatment programs. Researchers at the University at Albany's School of Public Health are now studying CC4U’s effectiveness.

One of those success stories for the program is Riley Hoopes, 20, who sought help at the police station after descending into heroin addiction as a teenager. “I just thought I couldn’t ever talk to a cop about what I’m going through, because they’re not going to understand,” she says in the video. “But they got me into a rehab instead of sending me to jail.”

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