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East Grand Forks arrest preceded by sharp criticisms

Rift between staff and police officer reflects different points of view when dealing with addicted individuals and the fallout from ongoing drug use.

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Amber Hardtke, the treatment director at Douglas Place, a housing and addiction treatment center off Hwy. 2 in East Grand Forks, was arrested Thursday, Jan. 23, by East Grand Forks police and currently faces a pair of misdemeanor charges for obstructing the legal process, according to Minnesota court records. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

A late-January arrest is part of a broader – often tense – relationship between Douglas Place treatment center staff and an East Grand Forks police officer.

Det. Sgt. Tony Hart feels the center is a haven for predatory offenders and drug users trying to game the system who sometimes steal cars or burgle East Grand Forks homes. Executives at Meridian Behavioral Health, which runs the center, characterized him as a "bully." Emails obtained by the Herald via a public records request shed more light on that relationship.

“By importing anyone and everyone from around the state, you are putting a burden on this community,” Hart wrote in a July email chain between himself, Chief Mike Hedlund, Jaime Zuniga, who is Douglas Place’s program coordinator, and Amber Hardtke, the treatment director whom Hart arrested on Jan. 23 after she refused to hand over patient records outlined in a search warrant, citing federal privacy laws. “I am 100% in favor of someone getting the help they need overcoming addiction but I cannot stand it when they use that as a veil to continue using or playing the system.”

Hardtke faced a pair of misdemeanor charges for obstructing the legal process, according to Minnesota court records, but they no longer appeared in the records system as of Friday afternoon.

Cliff Wardlaw, the assistant county attorney who reportedly told Hart and Lt. Rod Hajicek to arrest Hardtke after she refused the warrant, declined to comment on Tuesday. County Attorney Greg Widseth did not return Herald requests for comment on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.

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In those July emails, Hart claimed patients at the center have stolen cars to get home, another burgled several homes and others decided to stay in town and were later arrested for drug offenses.

Hardtke responded by saying staff at Douglas Place have made changes since Meridian Behavioral Health purchased the facility in 2015. Among them are patients cannot leave the property without staff. Alarms sound if a center door opens at night.

Previous to 2015, some patients were allowed to leave the facility. Some brought drugs back or committed crimes in East Grand Forks, Hardtke told the Herald.

“I think Tony Hart has an impression that that’s continuing to go on,” she said.

Hardtke said Friday she thinks those changes have been “very effective” at reducing the number of crimes patients there commit. Hart evidently disagrees.

Hart also criticized what he characterized as a double standard employed by center staff, who generally call police when a patient assaults someone there, but not when center staff finds drugs.

“I find it very annoying when people pick and choose what crimes that want enforced and I am not alone with that,” Hart wrote.

Hardtke said staff often find drugs or alcohol in the center’s lounges, bathrooms or lawns – common areas where they have no reliable way to determine who the drugs belong to or how they were brought in. On the rare occasion that a patient admits that the drugs are theirs, staff report it to the patient's probation officer. And, Hardtke wrote, they’re remorseful and want help.

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“This is our business,” she wrote. “We help patients break the cycle of addiction and teach them how to build a life worth living.”

Douglas Place staff also administer at least one random urine analysis once per patient per month, and, when circumstances dictate, they “UA” the entire facility or a specific patient. If one of those analyses tests positive for illegal drugs, center staff notify probation officers, case managers and drug courts. Staff routinely destroy drugs a patient has when first admitted.

“We do not involve law enforcement in facility issues unless we are certain that a patient is an immediate threat to themselves or others and/or we are certain that a specific and identifiable patient has committed a crime,” Hardtke told Hart and Hedlund.

She also wrote that the center occasionally accepts patients with a “predatorial” history but considers the nature of the charges and how long ago they were filed. Patients aren’t always up-front about prior sexual or predatory offenses and are usually transferred to another facility if or when Douglas Place staff find out.

“You now have three people at the Douglas House that are predatory offenders,” Hart wrote to Hardtke on Nov. 18. “Are you guys trying to fill the place with them now?”

Executives at Meridian Behavioral Health said they’re collecting stories of Hart's alleged aggressive behavior from staff members.

East Grand Forks fulfilled the Herald’s Jan. 28 request for correspondence between police and center staff within hours. Hedlund said he had forwarded the data request to all EGFPD staff and asked that they contact him or Lt. Hajicek with any of the information the paper requested, which amounted to emails, text messages and phone calls between police and center staff. The department is still working to provide call records.

Similar disputes between law enforcement and treatment centers have happened in other cities nationwide.

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In St. Charles County, Missouri, in 2013, a pair of managers at a Bridgeway Behavioral Health facility turned away police officers who were looking for a man who hadn’t shown up for an appointment with his parole officer, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Police returned with a warrant, but the managers didn’t comply with it, insisting that the officers’ paperwork did not have the language necessary to allow the managers to break their rules on patient confidentiality. The misdemeanor charges they faced for interfering with police were dropped.

And in 2018, Kiki Schatz was set to be charged with misdemeanor hindering law enforcement after she barred police from entering a Heartview Foundation methadone clinic in Bismarck to arrest a patient there, according to the Bismarck Tribune. The case against Schatz was later dropped, and she now works for Bismarck Public Schools.

Schatz told the Herald that she didn’t think there was an antagonistic relationship between the clinic at which she used to work and Bismarck police. She said she suspects that some people use treatment centers to avoid police, but that she didn’t know of any personally. And Schatz said she always encouraged her clients to resolve their legal issues.

“Because the problems aren’t going to go away,” Schatz said. “You’re still going to have to resolve it sooner or later. Why don’t we resolve it now?”

Garret Christopher, a senior press adviser at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, declined to comment when asked if there was a difficult relationship, nationally, between treatment centers and police.

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