A few decades ago, opioid overdose was practically unknown in rural Delaware County. In 2016, it claimed ten lives here. The same year, in neighboring Ulster County, the toll was 53.
There are plenty of convenient targets to blame: pharmaceutical companies, heroin dealers, doctors who are too quick with the prescription pad, the addicts themselves.
That doesn’t matter, says Peter Volkmann, chief of police for the little Capital Region village of Chatham, NY.
“Who cares whoever’s fault it is?” Volkmann said. “People are dying. We can worry about blaming later.” Surprising words, from a man whose job it is to figure out who to blame for things — but Volkmann has clearly taken that old motto, “protect and serve,” to heart.
Volkmann was speaking in Margaretville, at a recent screening of the first part of a new local documentary, Smacked! Heroin Addiction and Recovery in Rural America. Filmed in Delaware County, the three-part documentary is the work of local videographer Jessica Vecchione and reporter Lillian Browne.
The screening on June 28, sponsored by the Margaretville Hospital, featured a panel of local addiction and healthcare experts who spoke after the film. Each had an illuminating story to tell, but the most riveting was Volkmann. An alcoholic in recovery himself, the police chief told the tale of how his department, in an upstate town of 4000, stopped arresting opiate addicts, and started helping them get treatment instead.
It was nothing short of a paradigm shift, for a law enforcement officer.
“It’s really hard for police to let go,” he said.
But the old model of cracking down hard on drug users simply wasn’t working. People were dying. The community had been kind to Volkmann when he began recovery himself, and he decided to try paying it forward.
“I had to balance consequences and personal responsibility with public health,” he said.
Dubbed “Chatham Cares 4 U,” the Chatham program was launched in 2016. The program has helped 195 “souls” so far, Volkmann said, many of them from beyond Chatham’s borders. People from all walks of life have come to the police station for help: teenagers, successful businesspeople, homeless people, pregnant women. He and his 24-member part-time police force have found beds in treatment centers for every single one of them.
Volunteers, dubbed “community angels,” are trained to sit with and talk to people while they wait to begin recovery care, sometimes literally holding their hands. Other volunteers in the community put together care bags for people to take with them to treatment, stocked with stamped envelopes, encouraging cards, crackers and ginger ale.
Many law enforcement officers are skeptical of what Chatham is doing, Volkmann said, but the results speak for themselves. Public health researchers at the University of Albany are studying the program, and the data coming out of it is encouraging. A grassroots initiative in the city of Schenectady is looking into using the program as a model.
Chatham’s program is part of a larger movement in law enforcement, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI), whose members seek to create pathways to treatment instead of arrest for addicts looking for help. Here in our own region, the Woodstock Police Department signed on as a PAARI member in 2017, one of 23 police departments in the state to do so.
“Every school, every library, every town hall, every village hall should open themselves up as a safe place,” Volkmann said. “Money is not going to correct this. It’s the will of the community that’s going to correct this.”
After all of the panelists at the screening had spoken, a vigorous discussion broke out. The town of Middletown, in which the village of Margaretville sits, is about the same size as Chatham. Could we pull off Volkmann’s improbable feat in our own town? Chatham has a part-time police force of 24; we have no town or village police at all. But we do have libraries, fire halls, and a community hospital: places where volunteers could potentially be trained, and where people could be encouraged to go for help. Could we enlist the support of state or county law enforcement? If we could transform ourselves into a community that embraces and cares for addicts, how many lives could we save?
After the panel, things got a little more hands-on: Each of us in the audience got a Narcan kit, used to stop an overdose in progress, and a brief training in how to use it.
I was surprised at how much those few minutes of training affected me. Walking out of the event into the cool evening air, with a few dozen of my neighbors who had all been newly empowered to save a life in a crisis, I felt an unexpected rush of optimism. It’s not much, having a plastic baggie of naloxone to keep in the glove compartment in case of emergency, but it made me feel like part of the solution, not just a helpless, hand-wringing spectator.
The makers of Smacked! have been holding community screenings of Part 1 around the Catskills region since it premiered in March, and they will hold more screenings when the rest of the film is released. The film, whose first part focuses on the voices of local people in recovery, is a rare deep dive into a local epidemic, and an ambitious project for a couple of independent documentarians. More importantly, it’s getting the community talking.
I’m a big believer in the social value of documenting trauma and suffering; as a reporter, I’d better be. But without the next step — community action — the production and consumption of painful stories is just emotional voyeurism. Projects like Smacked! show their real worth when they serve as a nucleus for action, the grit that might become a pearl.
A screening of Smacked! will be held 6 p.m. Sunday, July 15, at the office of the Catskill Dream Team at 10 Rosa Road in Margaretville. For more information about the film, or to inquire about hosting a screening, visit VeccBrowne Productions at veccbrowneproductions.org, or visit the film’s Facebook page at facebook.com/veccbrowne.