JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Police Chief Ed Densmore spoke about opioids and substance abuse before local elected officials and business leaders July 25 at an event hosted by the Johns Creek Chamber.
Though North Fulton and Forsyth County are often ranked among the safest places to live in Georgia, they have been home to a startling number of opioid deaths, earning the nickname the “Heroin Triangle.”
As part of a series of community dialogues on decreasing addiction in the workplace, the Chamber of Commerce hosted the Johns Creek police chief and interim city manager to speak about the work a joint task force between Alpharetta, Johns Creek and Forsyth has accomplished to fight drug crimes.
Densmore started with a story about the medical blue bag that all Johns Creek patrol officers carry. The backpack contains about $3,500 in medical equipment including a defibrillator, tourniquet, gauze, chest seal and Naloxone.
Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, is a medication that can save the lives of people who are suffering from an opioid overdose. It is increasingly common for police officers to carry Naloxone, and Johns Creek Police were among the first in the state.
Densmore estimated the blue backpacks had save at least 50 lives, many thanks to Naloxone. But the emergency drug only treats the overdose, not the addiction. The officers found themselves going back to the same houses time and time again.
“It’s good we’re catching them on the back end and we’re able to save some lives, but what are we doing to try to address the issue of the drug being on the streets?” Densmore asked.
Through conversations with surrounding jurisdictions Alpharetta and Forsyth, Densmore knew there was a need collaboration, so the joint task force was created.
Unlike other drug teams that are largely self-funded by the cash, cars and other material they confiscate, Densmore said, the task force was provided a budget by the cities. This gave the 27-officer team more discretion and allowed them to focus on high-level distributers and on opioids, over less dangerous drugs.
Based on the amount of drugs confiscated, the task force has been a huge success. In 2018, roughly 22 grams of heroin were taken off the street; this year, officers have already collected 63 grams, Densmore said.
LSD went from 19 grams in 2018 to 739 so far this year. Ecstasy 136 grams in all of last year, a 125 so far in 2019. With other opioids, 585 pills total in 2018. To date, 970 pills have been collected in 2019.
Densmore was also proud to say that Naloxone use for treating overdoses had gone down.
“I have no plans to reduce the task force because it’s working,” Densmore said. “But we are not going to arrest our way out of this problem, because we still arrest the same people over and over again.”
The point Densmore drove home is that there is only so much law enforcement can achieve without a support system for mental health and addiction treatment. Like with the Nalaxone, they can’t treat the root causes of addiction.
“The vast majority, they get out and they’re right back into the system,” Densmore said. “The prison system in the country is punishment-based, not rehabilitation-based, so until there’s a philosophical change in that part of it, every prison in the state is over-maxed.”
Densmore acknowledged that increasing mental health and addiction treatment carries a big price tag. He said that because police are the only government agency open 24/7, officers often respond to mental health calls they are not the most qualified to address, even with additional mental health de-escalation training.
“We can do a better job at what we’re doing, but we’re still addressing things that up to a couple years ago weren’t being brought to law enforcement,” Densmore said. “We’re the ones who respond to the house when things are going sideways or someone if refusing to take their medication.”
Attendees at the luncheon were receptive to the chief’s ideas.
“I think it was very informative,” State House Rep. Angelika Kausche said. “He really could give us a feeling about what is the day to day work and what are his needs. We are asking police to be mental health first responders, which they’re not trained for.”
Kausche said she hopes in the upcoming legislative session representatives will set aside divisive issues and focus on working on things like mental health and substance abuse.
“It seems like the attorneys, law enforcement, mental health folks are all on the same page that we need to do something different, it’s the legislators that are the last group to really be convinced,” said Johns Creek City Councilman Chris Coughlin, one of several council members in attendance.
Everyone also commended the chief for his work.
“The Johns Creek Police Department is amazing at what they’ll bring to the community and teach to the community,” Chamber President Kent Davies said.