When Tom Bashore became Chief of the Nashville Police Department he wasn't expecting to spearhead a ground-breaking program offering help and hope to people struggling with addiction. But Nashville, North Carolina, home to only 5500 residents, is leading the pack of Southern states on innovative strategies to address a rising drug addiction problem.
It all started in October 2015 when the new Nashville Town Manager approached Chief Bashore with information about a program in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The Gloucester Police Department was opening up its doors to anyone with an addiction - "Come in. We won't charge you. We'll find you help." People seeking help were not being charged for drug possession and were instead connected to case managers who helped them learn about addiction treatment options and enroll them in programs.
Chief Bashore liked the idea right away. "We are starting to see an increase in heroin use and overdose calls in Nash County," he says. "We're going to need to start doing things a little differently if we want to manage this problem."
The first step was to get the local District Attorney on board. The Gloucester program had faced initial hurdles from prosecutors who said that law enforcement didn't have the authority to not charge for a drug crime. But when Chief Bashore approached his local District Attorney, he found the office fully on board with the idea. Bashore also contacted the local hospital and detoxification facility for help with getting case management and detox options for people who wanted to stop using drugs. By February 2016, the program was ready to go public.
"If someone comes into the police station asking for help, we don't ask questions about where they get there dope or charge them for any drugs they might have on them," says Chief Bashore. "Instead, we take them to the back of the police station, make them comfortable, explain the program and their responsibilities, and have them fill out some paperwork. While the paperwork is processing we call a volunteer to come sit with the person. The volunteer is typically a person in recovery from drug use."
Once the paperwork is processed, the person is then transported to the hospital and entered into a short-term detox facility that will help ease the discomfort and withdrawal symptoms as a person is coming off of drugs. Once in detox, each participant is assigned a social worker. The social workers, as well as a group of over 30 community members who have volunteered to help with the Hope Initiative, start calling around to short term treatment facilities, as well as long term treatment facilities (which often have waiting periods of several months and may be located out of state). The short term facilities are necessary to have somewhere to house the person while he or she is waiting for space in a long term facility to open up.
Nashville itself doesn't have any inpatient drug treatment facilities. Thus, the social workers, volunteers, and even some police officers are faced with the onerous task of calling treatment facilities across the state and even across the country looking for openings. Most treatment facilities don't have any beds available, or the person seeking treatment is disqualified due to criminal history, mental health history, age, location, gender, lack of insurance or any number of reasons that keep people who want treatment from getting any.
At the end of the day, it's a numbers game. It takes time, patience, and many, many tries to find a treatment center with an opening. At that point, the person is placed on a waiting list for long-term care and is transported to a short-term facility, which may be in Raleigh or Greenville over an hour away. The police department picks up the cost of transporting the person to the facilities. Other than that, costs to the department are minimal - the hospital pays for the detox facility and social workers, the treatment facilities offer scholarships or free care (hence the long waiting lists), and volunteers take care of most of the phone calls.
Since the program was first announced in February 2016, eleven people have shown up on the steps of the Nashville Police Department asking for help. Chief Bashore recalls the very first person who went through the program.
"He was a former Marine. He tore his ACL while in the military, had surgery, got put on pain medication and turned to heroin after he was discharged from the military," says the Chief. "We got him into detox and into a short-term treatment facility until we could find something long term. We ended up buying his plane ticket to a long-term treatment program in Florida. He has been doing great."
According to Chief Bashore, the biggest hurdle to the Hope Initiative has been finding long term care facilities.
"Traditionally, the onus is on the individual to call all those facilities and find treatment," says Chief Bashore. "Of course there is some validity to the idea that people seeking help need to take ownership of the situation and do their part, but heroin especially is a very difficult drug. Most of the people coming through our program don't have a support system and have burned a lot of bridges, so if they get out of detox and can't find a treatment center immediately they go back to using drugs. Our program is about staying with them the whole way so they are able to follow through."
Chief Bashore says that opening up more long-term treatment facilities is key to the success of a program like the Hope Initiative.
"We shouldn't have to send people to Florida," he says. "We have to call so many facilities to get someone in."
He also points out the community benefits of a program like the Hope Initiative.
"This program benefits police and the community because the more people we help, the fewer are committing petty crimes. We are helping reduce the number of crime victims and help people who struggle with addiction."
Chief Bashore hopes that other police departments will follow suit and he and other members of his department are available to answer questions and help others through the process. For more information on how to start a Hope Initiative, please contact Chief Tom Bashore at 252-459-4545.