Police Unit Fights Drug Abuse With Treatment Rather Than Jail

Brittany Malkowski speaks with her DART officer, Karl Schwemley, at Zepf Recovery House. (Photo: ideastream)
Brittany Malkowski speaks with her DART officer, Karl Schwemley, at Zepf Recovery House. (Photo: ideastream)
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Brittany Malkowski is a recovering heroin addict who’s coming up on 6 months of being sober… And she’s doing something unusual: talking about her opioid addiction with deputy Karl Schwemley as though he were a counselor or a close friend.

At Zepf recovery house in Toledo, Malkowski describes her breaking point in October 2016 when she overdosed twice in one night.

"One night I bought some heroin, me and my friend did. And we did it and the last thing I remember is waking up with paramedics over my face," Malkowski said. "I told them I was refusing all medical treatment and I’m leaving… I walked out and 5 hours later I did another dose and overdosed again."

While many people may be surprised to hear about addicts overdosing twice in one night, it’s nothing new for Karl Schwemley.

Though he’s dressed in a shirt and tie, he’s a law enforcement officer part of the Drug Abuse Response Team, or DART, at the Lucas County Sheriff’s Department. While most police officers battle drug abuse with handcuffs and jail time, DART officers like Schwemley visit addicts simply to check up on them and offer support.

"I try to keep up on most of my current clients at least once every 30 days if not sooner. It kind of depends, I have some clients that need a little more attention, need a little more help."

Schwemley is one of 11 full-time and 9 part-time DART officers who find addicts in the street or after they overdose, then guide them into treatment as opposed to jail… as long as the offense is minor and non-violent. If they are charged and sent to jail, DART reconnects with them when they get out.

Sheriff John Tharp started the program almost 3 years ago.

"We have chose not to arrest them, we have chose to take them to detox. We know it’s a disease, and we know it’s a common conversation now we can’t arrest our way out of this epidemic."

DART officers drive to hospitals or overdose scenes, talk to the addict about getting help, then sometimes even drive them directly to detox. The DART officer then keeps tabs on the people they’re assigned to – texting, calling, or checking up on them weekly or monthly in person. They even facilitate things like helping them get jobs or housing.

Since the program started in 2014, DART officers have connected with over 2,200 opioid addicts, and helped keep 73% of them in treatment.

Back at Zepf recovery house, Karl Schwemley listens as Brittany Malkowski opens up about her experience with DART.

"Any point in time, I can call you guys. And if you can’t give me a ride, you find somebody else from the DART team that can give me a ride. And just those simple little things like that, give you some hope. It gives an addict some hope like wow, somebody does care and somebody does want me to do better in my life."

The DART program has become both a state and national model, receiving part of an $800,000 grant from the state of Ohio. Other counties, including Cuyahoga, Stark, and Union County, which is northwest of Columbus – have had conversations with the sheriff about DART to see how they might incorporate something similar in their communities.

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