West Warwick mission: Heal drug addicts rather than jail them

WEST WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — In a new partnership, West Warwick’s police department is taking a new approach to help fight Rhode Island’s drug addiction epidemic.

The police chief, Col. John Magiera, said Monday the goal is to divert people away from the criminal justice system and into proper services.

“In West Warwick in 2016, we had 49 cases which involved overdoses, and eight of them were deaths,” said Col. Magiera. “In 2017, as of May 1, we’ve responded to 15 calls with three deaths already.”

To match successful programs in Providence and Warwick, West Warwick is now bringing in a clinician from The Providence Center (TPC) to ride with officers on calls expected to encounter people in distress and overcome by drug addiction. The program started in mid-March.

“My main role is to connect with those people and provide an additional opportunity for them to get help,” said Heather Seger, one of the Center’s clinicians.

Still, crimes won’t be ignored while treatment is provided.

“That is our whole goal, is to try to get them in to treatment to take care of what they can,” said Col. Magiera. “But obviously there’s times like crimes of violence, certain crimes, where we are certainly not going to ‘not’ arrest. But in cases where we can get them help first, we will do that.”

So far, West Warwick officials say the program has been successful.

In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics, Rhode Island had the fifth-highest rate of overdose deaths in the country.