Chatham PD trains its ‘angels’

CHATHAM–About a dozen prospective angels gathered around the long table in the town courtroom at Tracy Memorial Village Hall last week. They had come to meet with the village police chief and his sergeant, who explained what their duties should be.

These angels–the job title for these volunteers–will be part of the new Village of Chatham Police Department drug abuse response program called Chatham Cares for U, CC4U for short. Begun in late June, the program encourages drug abusers to come to the department at the village hall and request treatment. Chatham police will then find a treatment center willing to take the drug user and will transport that person to the facility; the user won’t be charged with a crime.

What’s the role for CC4U angels? “You’re not a therapist; you’re not a counselor,” Police Chief Peter Volkmann told the group. “You’re a compassionate presence.” In that role, he said, angels don’t even have to talk to the drug abusers they meet. But they are expected to be supportive of the drug abuser and his or her desire to quit during the drive in a police vehicle to a treatment facility.

There are rules and requirements, including the need for confidentiality and for training in the use of Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, the drug that can counteract opioid drug overdoses if administered in time.

The program also recognizes that the contact creates risks for the volunteers. That was why one of the other people around the table at the August 25 session was clinical psychologist John Wapner, a 40-year resident of the Town of Chatham who, among other things, works with New York Civil Service, seeing people in public service jobs who are using and abusing drugs. He told the angels-in-training that he was there as “a resource for all of you” if the pressures mount on them in their work with the program. “I’m comfortable being a good listener,” he said.

Also there in a professional capacity was Aimee Richards, director of the Mobile Crisis Assessment Team (MCAT), which provides free emergency mental health service in Columbia and Greene counties. It’s sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Columbia Greene and will help assess the needs and appropriate services for people with addictions and will also be available to help the angels.

The volunteers around the table had an idea of what’s ahead. Most in this group were women and many of them have family members who have struggled, or continue to struggle, with addiction. They know the toll that opioids take and that the problem is not confined to heroin or the abuse of prescription pain medication. Some abusers end up using radically more potent synthetic compounds like Fentanyl and a substance called W18, described by Ms. Richards as an elephant tranquillizer and 100 times more potent than heroin.

“I feel like we’re losing a generation,” said one woman.

Chief Volkmann introduced a young woman at the far end of the table as the second person to go through the CC4U program. She said she’d started experimenting with drugs when she was 15 and was injecting heroin when she was 16. Now in her 20s, she wanted to quit although, “My biggest fear was getting off everything.” She called two rehab facilities for help. When she couldn’t get through she gave up. There were murmurs of recognition from around the table.

A friend took her to the Chatham Police Station. “Those gentlemen went to hell and back for me,” she said of the hours the police spent trying to find an opening in a drug rehab program. They took her there in a police car, driving fast. She said the trip was “cool,” explaining, “It gave me a sense of confidence.” She spent three days in detox and four in a rehab program. With the help of a drug called vivitrol she has been otherwise drug free since treatment began.

Chief Volkmann acknowledges the odds against recovery working. He said the average is seven tries at rehab before those who are going to get free of addiction manage to do it. One of the things that improves the chances of success is having people around who support the person trapped by the drugs, someone other than a family member who tells the person “you can do it” in some way or another.

That’s where the angels are supposed to lend a hand, and neither the chief nor his second in command, Sgt. Joseph Alessi, suggested that would be a simple task.

The chief repeatedly emphasized that a police department, even one as small as Chatham’s part-time force, is a “paramilitary organization,” and the angels, who will work as department volunteers, will be the lowest rung on the law enforcement hierarchy. Everyone else in the department outranks them.

With a smile the chief said that as a practical matter he defers to Sgt. Alessi.

Among the pitfalls awaiting angels are situations where they don’t like or can’t support a person seeking help. Likewise, problems arise when angels become too attached to the people they’re asked to help.

Despite the obstacles, the chief is optimistic and unwilling to wait for someone else to take the lead. “I’m tired of meetings. Tired of talking. I want to do something,” he said.

The Chatham Police Department is still accepting applications from people who want to be angels. Email or the Mobile Crisis Assessment Team (MCAT) is at 518 943-5555.

The contact editor Parry Teasdale email

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