Heroin Series: Law enforcement handcuffed in combating heroin epidemic

SUSSEX COUNTY – A decade ago, heroin rarely made police blotter news.

Arrests occurred about as often as a blue moon.

These days, heroin is the drug of choice – an extremely addictive opiate that has fueled a crime wave, encompassing robbery, burglary, home invasion and other criminal activity.

Town of Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin says there has indeed been a huge increase in arrests and crime-related incidents tied to heroin.

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“Yes, I’d say it’s probably a 10 fold increase. I took over as the chief in May of 2001. As far as I can recall we probably went a good decade – we probably logged no more than two heroin arrests in a decade,” said Chief McLaughlin. “Now, it’s not unusual to have two a week, or more than a week. It has been a huge increase. Recently, we made an arrest … literally less than 200 yards from the police station.”

It’s a similar scenario in neighboring Selbyville and also Georgetown.

“A vast majority of our burglaries are tied to heroin,” said Selbyville Police Chief Scott Collins. “The drug of choice has certainly gone from prescription pills to heroin right now. The bulk of our drug arrests right now are heroin – and marijuana. It’s an epidemic, without a doubt.”

“All we used to deal with is crack and marijuana. For the past three years it has mostly been heroin,” said Georgetown Police Department spokesman Lt. Lawrence Grose. “It is mainly due to the crackdown on the pain pills, which are basically a synthetic heroin. Now that it is harder to get the pills the addicts have gone back to the basics, which is heroin. It has ruined a lot of people’s lives.”

That trend echoes statewide across Delaware.

In 2005, Sussex and Kent counties combined had 10 arrests for heroin possession, said Delaware State Police Lt. Charles Sawchenko III with Troop 3 in Dover.

“In 2014, there were 828 charges – a dramatic increase,” said Lt. Sawchenko. “In the 1970s and 1980s heroin was more of an urban drug. Now you see heroin a lot more rural and suburban areas.”

Lt. Sawchenko, who transitioned to Delaware State Police in 1995 after a tenure as a social worker, counselor and therapist, says law enforcement is somewhat handcuffed in combatting heroin and illegal drug use.

“We arrest users all of them time,” said Lt. Sawchenko. “It’s only a misdemeanor so they post bond and they’re off and running.”

And more often than not they’re fixed on running right back to the street.

“In my opinion law enforcement for the most part is pretty good. We’ve got good police forces in the state of Delaware. We’re pretty effective for the most part when it comes to combatting the drugs,” Chief McLaughlin said. “The problem that we have is when we do get folks in there that are incarcerated – if we can get them in jail – they need to have treatment before they are released. And then there needs to be follow-up treatment afterwards. And that is simply not available for the most part.”

Heroin addiction is devastating people young and old, destroying family unity and its criminal collateral effects continue to make police news, says Jim Martin, a recovering addict who has established nearly two three-quarter houses, founder of the A.C.E. (Acceptance Change Empowerment) Peer Resource Center/Haven at the Peer Residence and is among the facilitators of the revived Sussex County Action Prevention Coalition.

“We’re talking about crime. I believe that people are going to be held up for five bucks, shot in their cars for $5, and for loose change,” said Mr. Martin. “There is a thing called dope sickness; it comes over the heroin addict and they can’t think of anything else but solving that problem. They’ll let their babies starve. They are so concerned about dope sickness; it completely takes over their brain. That’s why they steal. That’s why the petty crimes have gone up.”

Chief McLaughlin said he and his department witness first-hand the heartbreaking impact of heroin addiction.

“I’ve got one young lady locally that we deal with quite a bit that … depending on what day of the week it is … she’s a recovering addict, but she falls off the wagon quite a bit,” Chief McLaughlin said. “She has told me that she got started – she would have never started using heroin – but she went to buy some marijuana from a guy for herself and her girlfriend … he said ‘I don’t have any but I have got this, try this.’ He told her how to snort it. They snorted it. She said she was hooked from the first day. It’s creepy to hear her tell her story because it just amazes me that something could have that much control over you. She had three young children and she just walked away from them. Literally dropped them off and walked away from them. And she’s a decent person. She’s not a bad person. It just scares the hell out of me that something could have that much control over somebody.”

Chief McLaughlin said people battling addiction demons regularly come into the police station asking for help.

“We get on the phone and start calling and calling …,” Chief McLaughlin said. “We had one young lady in here not too long ago, she was begging for help. She said, ‘If I leave I’m going to go get some dope and shoot up.’ We wound up having to get her committed on a psychiatric evaluation, to get her in the hospital somewhere to get her off the streets. But that really wasn’t her problem. She needed drug and alcohol counseling, not a psychiatric evaluation.”

“It’s an uphill battle,” said Chief Collins.

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