ROCHESTER, Minn. — Two years ago, the Rochester Police Department announced a new program aimed at getting people in treatment for substance use and, it was hoped, ending a cycle of criminal behavior.
“People talk about reimagining policing. And this is what we are doing,” said Rochester Police Capt. John Sherwin. “There's no legislative body telling us to do this. This is what we are doing every day.”
Using narcotics seizure money and a one-year grant from Mayo Clinic, the program, unveiled on July 31, 2019, was created to give the department the ability to fund a bed on retainer at Doc’s Recovery House for men and Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge for women. The program also was intended to empower officers to make contact with those they may have come across on calls who had suffered non-fatal overdoses and talk to them about treatment options.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Minnesota in March 2020, nearly a year of progress was stymied. Law enforcement was forced to reimagine the way they responded to calls, and in Rochester, that meant PAR came nearly to a halt. Since its inception, the mission and aim has evolved — now leaning heavily on a partnership with the embedded social workers.
Fine-tuning the approach
Before police outreach efforts expanded in Olmsted County, the process of reaching a PAR officer or recovery resource was not straightforward.
When an officer responded to an overdose call and used Narcan or naloxone, the officer had to write a report. That report would then make it to a supervisor's desk, such as Sherwin’s.
“We would make referrals to the adult behavioral health unit, and then they would take that information and try and coordinate with police officers who are involved in the PAR program, to actually go out to kind of have an intervention with these people, these victims who had overdosed, to try and get them in treatment,” he said.
Nearly two years after its inception, the PAR program and its officers see partners in the Olmsted County outreach specialists under the Diversity, Equity, and Community Outreach Team. With the expansion of the social worker program, the PAR program’s goal of helping to connect people to resources became easier, according to Sherwin.
Social workers now respond to calls for service with officers. This frees up police officers’ time and allows social workers to provide follow-up with those who need help.
Recently, Sherwin said, a man came into the lobby of the north station with a crisis-type situation. Sherwin happened to be in the lobby but was occupied with something else, so he called for an outreach specialist. Teri Dose, an outreach specialist and social worker, responded.
“Within an hour, you're out doing a welfare check at a residence. In the past, that's tying up police resources,” Sherwin said. “Our officers, they do a great job with dealing with people in crisis. But the follow-up is tough.”
The outreach specialists are able to monitor a status screen, which allows them to see what calls officers are on. Watching the screen, Dose said the specialists can recognize names of people they’ve had frequent contact with.
“And we're like, ‘Ope, there's that name again. Let's outreach that person,’” she said. “So we're doing a lot more outreach with people. That's one thing that the officers, they just don't have the ability or the time or the training to just do that all the time. But we do.”
Dose said the PAR program and the outreach team helped create a breaking down of silos.
PAR in action
The program has ramped up significantly since implementation, and PAR officers are asking for outreach specialists daily.
Dose said from her standpoint as an outreach specialist, a very small number of calls that specialists have been involved with since Jan. 1, 2021, have ended in an arrest.
Data collected by the outreach specialists show that between Jan. 1 and May 31, 2021, the outreach specialists have responded to a total of 239 calls, whether in person or over the phone.
The vast majority of those calls (169) were a result of being dispatched by the Rochester Police Department. Twenty-two calls were from the Olmsted County Sheriff’s Office, and 48 came from other sources.
Outcomes were reported for 75 of the 239 calls. Of those 75, only two resulted in the person going to jail. Seventy-three saw a person end up in an emergency room for care or evaluation.
“We were able then to 'divert' 164 people by providing services or assessing/closing out the initial call for service,” said Nikki Niles, former program manager for Dodge-Fillmore-Olmsted Community Corrections’ new Diversity, Equity and Community Outreach, and current DFO Community Corrections director.
The police department has also spoken with the city and county attorneys to make sure all are in alignment that if someone wants to turn in illegal drugs, they could do so without an arrest. That doesn’t mean someone can be stopped by police and found to be in possession of drugs and get off without consequences by turning over their drugs.
“In the end, this is about keeping our community safe. Substance abuse leads to crime because the addiction drives criminal behavior for people that are desperate,” Sherwin said. “That’s the goal — to make this community safer, and arresting people on possession charges is not going to do that.”
A community endeavor
Police and social workers aren’t the only ones who have seen positive advancements in the community since the program was implemented. Some said they see it as lifesaving.
Dr. Steve Lansing, clinical director of EmPower CTC, said he has had clients who have taken advantage of that program.
Lansing, an early partner of the PAR program, also helped provide addiction awareness to nearly three dozen officers. During the training, Lansing said officers learned about what happens to the brain with certain chemicals and how addiction can affect a person’s judgement, the ability to make sound decisions, and how an officer can work more effectively with a person with an addiction.
“A lot of people don’t realize the magnitude of what the issue is here,” he said. “Those of us who are on the frontlines most definitely do, and that is what PAR has done for those who are struggling with addictions — is put a more effective force out there to help people who are not criminals; they are somebody with a disease that commits criminal behavior.”
From the perspective of Doc’s Recovery House executive director, the PAR program has been a success in the collaboration it has created within the community. While the pandemic impacted the program, Tori Utley said Doc’s was able to support a “handful of gentlemen in their recovery” through the PAR program.
In the coming months, Utley said Doc’s is looking to increase their commitment to the program. Doc’s received a state grant, and Utley said they plan to use the funds to help train peer recovery specialists that can be used in a number of settings, including in partnership with the outreach specialists and the PAR program.
“The treatment of the person is becoming more dignified,” she said.