“I didn’t become a cop to arrest every person that I knew.”
In a small town in Upstate New York, Chief Peter Volkmann is transforming his police department to better respond to the explosion of opioid overdoses. He i s a nationally recognized leader in law enforcement-based harm reduction programs and community-oriented policing.
Mikayla Hellwich and Roshun Shah: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. People who read our blog love to hear from officers who support harm reduction. Please tell us a little bit about Chatham: what it’s like to be a police chief in a rural town in New York, and what are some of the challenges you face?
Police Chief Peter Volkmann: Chatham is in Columbia County, right outside of Albany. We’re a very small village in a rural county, typical of Upstate New York. Our policing is very community oriented. Everybody knows everybody, but we still have the typical problems that every community has, which includes people suffering from substance use disorder.
A few years ago, we saw a tremendous spike in opioid deaths. Like many cities in Upstate, we had community forums. I called it the 9/11 syndrome. On 9/11, everybody remembers where they were and that they wanted to help but didn’t know how. It was the same feeling in these early meetings about opioids. As law enforcement with very limited resources for investigations, and as a police chief, we realized we couldn’t arrest our way out of this.
Years ago, I started saying, ‘The War on Drugs is over. If we can’t stop the supply, we need to stop the demand.’ This is Economics 101.
Now, to put another piece on that, I’ve come out publicly to say that I’m in recovery. My last drink was September 2, 1995. But, I wasn’t successful the first time around. I understand recovery is a lifelong process that sometimes involves relapses. So, I made the decision to follow the PAARI model [Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative] out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. We had to change it some for New York based on our state policies, but we made the conscious decision to say to people, “Before you get arrested, before you get in trouble, when you’re ready for recovery, you can come to Chatham police and we’ll find you a treatment bed.” So far, we’ve had over 200 people come in and we found beds, with insurance approval, for 100% of them.
More and more, we’re starting to hear police executives, sheriffs, and even federal agents say the War on Drugs is over. I’ve heard it more recently in the past couple of months than I’ve ever heard it before.
In Gloucester, crime dropped significantly in the first year, which makes sense. If you help people who have substance use disorder get sober, they’re not going to steal as much to support their habit and you’re going to see your crime drop. Even if you look at it from a purely law enforcement perspective, our program is a crime prevention program that has tremendous immediate results.
Thank you for doing this work. You talked about how your model is based on the PAARI program — how is your program different?
In Massachusetts, you’re guaranteed treatment if you request it. In New York, you have to get insurance approval. The neat thing about us is that we actually stay with the family or the individual, and we bring them to the Department of Social Services and help them through the approval process.
In order to get insurance approved for opioid treatment in New York, the person has to show signs of withdrawal. You have to suffer, and you can’t use for about 24 hours. For somebody who’s struggling with an opioid disorder that’s really hard to do. So, we have to prepare them and their family and help find a safe place for them to detox. That’s one thing that I’m screaming and hollering about in New York: it’s sadistic to make someone suffer a certain amount in order to get insurance approval.
And that can be really dangerous too, because if they’re not under close medical supervision and they’ve had a really strong daily habit for a while withdrawal can make them really sick and dehydrate them — people have died from this.
Absolutely. The argument some in the medical community make is that you cannot die from an opioid withdrawal. But the problem is people who are taking heroin and going through a heroin withdrawal — or even withdrawal from a pain pill — is that the pills and the heroin they’re getting are not pure and contain other drugs. Now detox is dangerous for something that years ago, the medical community once believed would go away on its own after 72 hours. My argument is, it would be great if everything were perfect and pure in the streets, but it’s not. I’m doing whatever I can to just open up their eyes that we’re basing our evaluation of people who are asking for help on information that’s decades old. We’ve got to get with the times here.
Is there a specific moment that you can recall, when you realized your town had a problem with opioids?
It was a combination of a couple things. The first thing is that we started noticing the uptick of deaths in direct correlation to the rise of synthetic drugs. We saw the synthetic drugs come out and that’s when we started seeing overdoses. Also, it was personal for me, because I knew people who died — young kids — and it just crushed me. I couldn’t just stand around waiting for the government to do something. I had to do something, no matter how small… even if I just helped one person. And that’s why I created Chatham Cares 4 U. It’s ingrained in my blood as a police chief and an emergency medical technician and as a volunteer firefighter to save lives. I became a cop to save lives. I didn’t become a cop to arrest every person that I knew.
The other thing I think that really changed us was when the medical community made the fifth vital sign pain and we started expecting zero pain all the time. I remember when I got my first tooth filled, the dentist told me ‘when the Novocaine wears off, your tooth’s going to hurt for a couple days,’ that was it. Now you get pain pills. I remember when I got hurt in sports when I was a kid — you know what the doctor said? It’s going to hurt for a week, lay off of it. You dealt with pain, but right now we have the expectation of being painless. And I’m not just talking about physical pain. We are in a society that does not want to deal with psychological and emotional pain. We try to avoid it.
It really goes back to what you were saying about reducing demand and the economic component of drug use because if our solution to feeling pain is always to resort to the substances that are — for some people — extremely addictive and life altering, then we’re not helping people. It’s so important to connect people with those sort of demand reduction opportunities — a sense of community and feeling loved and getting therapy, to name a few.
Absolutely. Back when we had alcohol prohibition, it took 13 years for the government to realize we had some bad laws with alcohol, because it did absolutely nothing to stop alcohol in our society. If anything, it made our society more violent. More cops were shot at and more cops were killed. Gangs controlled alcohol usage and distribution. It was so bad they rescinded the prohibition of alcohol and decided to regulate it.
There are all kinds of alcohol regulations, but the government decided not to do that with other drugs. Really, we’re still in prohibition. If the prohibition of alcohol created all that violence and all those problems, why did they think drugs would be different?
How does Chatham Cares 4 U work in practice? Who are the community angels, and what do they do?
We have community volunteer angels. In the beginning, it took us a long time to find beds for everyone because we had to learn to navigate the dysfunctional insurance system and treatment requirements. Early on, we had a community volunteer sit with the person while officers worked the system and tried to find a bed. It worked out very well — 80% of the time we had a transport to the treatment facility, so our community angel would go with us, which lowered the patient’s anxiety tremendously. We’d go in an unmarked car with no cage in the back. The person we were transporting sat up front, and our Angel sat in the back. It was kind of neat to see how that made a difference because they weren’t being treated like a criminal. Now, with our angels, we’re so good at getting a bed, we usually find one in 20 minutes. The angels created a helpline, so someone can call before they even come into the station and give their information. They created their own organization that gives the police a heads up. We can now tell people how long they need to start the detox process, and we can make a safe plan and start the bed process before they even get to our headquarters.
When our police department was running out of money, we received over $10,000 in community donations to keep the department running with this program, which is absolutely amazing. We never asked for it, but people heard our budget was getting tight. Suddenly, the faith-based community came out and gave thousands of dollars to the village. They nicknamed it ‘the miracle in Chatham.’
That’s beautiful. I’m inspired by your commitment to humanizing the program participants — how they get to sit in the front and they don’t have to sit in the cage of a police car. I think that piece is important for everyone in law enforcement to see — that if you’re trying to help somebody who’s not really a criminal, then you can’t treat them like a criminal because then they’re afraid of you.
Exactly, and when I see our society choosing to not help somebody with a substance use disorder, I remind folks they’re going down a slippery slope by deciding who we help as a community and who we don’t. I’m quick to clamp down on that. We are all taught when you need help, call 911 or go to a cop. So why would this be any different that somebody who’s addicted comes forward and says they need help? As police, we assess and refer. If we can’t help, we can refer you to someone who can. When I started Chatham Cares 4 U, there were no referrals. Neither the mental health community nor the emergency department had any clue how to get someone into treatment, and it was put on us. Many times, even the medical community sizes somebody up without listening to them. Our officers are trained to listen to what’s going on in the lives of the people we serve.
After the department implemented Chatham Cares 4 U, did your relationship to the community change?
Yes, but we’ve done a lot of things differently since I became chief. I demilitarized our uniform, so our officers wear polo shirts and baseball hats. I instituted what I call ‘Your Cop.’ I divided the community up into neighborhoods and assigned each an officer who has to go to every house and introduce themselves, provide an email address, and offer information about the services we provide. It got our officers to have discussions without emergencies and emotion — just to have regular conversations. People have also said that being open about my recovery made a difference. In the beginning, I don’t think everyone embraced my openness about my own addiction or thought this was a good idea.
Have you been able to change some of their minds — do you see their opinions shifting?
Yes. More people now — loved ones and friends — are struggling with substance use disorder. Something that didn’t affect many of our community members personally does now, and their opinions have changed because they know their friends and loved ones are good people. They know they’re not “junkies” or criminals. Even though it’s impacting so many, people still call me and say, “Nobody can know,” because the stigma’s still there. So, we’re still working on that.
It’s unfortunate that it’s taken this crisis to change the stigma, but it’s encouraging that attitudes are finally shifting. I’d love to end on a hopeful note and get your future goals and predictions. What more would you like to do in your community? Is there anything that you are currently working on that you’d like to tell people about?
I think we’re going to see more police, fire, and EMS — the first responder world — looking at the opioid crisis and addiction, and the people who experience it, with compassion. I liken that to about 20 years ago in law enforcement with the mentally ill. Now there’s special training for crisis intervention technicians — CITs — to deal with mentally ill who are in crisis. Change in law enforcement is very slow, but I see communities no longer want that ‘tough guy’ police chief. Communities are demanding a different type of officer that’s approachable. I see demilitarization of police because communities are demanding it.
When I was a kid, my father said, “You knew the local cop, and he didn’t always arrest you — he’d bring you home.” So now we’re bringing policing back as part of the community again. The young officer coming up is a different type of officer with a different expectation of how to apply police services. I think we’re going from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality. In my department, every officer knows they are not warriors in our community — they are guardians. If we need warriors, we’ll call in the army to deal with the problems. But when there’s no war, we will take care of problems and situations.
I was the first in my county to put video cameras on police cars and officers. It changed the community. Anxiety between the police and the community dropped dramatically. It calmed everybody down. I see a lot of good things happening. What comes with change is struggle, but that struggle we’re having right now is good because community conversations will lead to community solutions. And I’m seeing a lot of police reaching out to the community having conversations that I didn’t see five or ten years ago.
Chief Peter Volkmann leads the Chatham Police Department in Upstate New York. He’s worked in law enforcement since 1986 and is an advocate for ending arrest quotas, implementing body cameras, ending the use of cash bail, better mental health training for police, reducing police militarization, addressing racial disparities in the justice system, using diversion programs for low-level offenders, and harm reduction approaches to drug addiction. He joined the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) in January 2018.
Roshun Shah is the Speakers Bureau Associate and Mikayla Hellwich is the Speakers Bureau & Media Relations Director for LEAP.