EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WLAX/WEUX) – Officials with the Menomonie Police Department announced a new program that is aimed at combatting drug abuse in Dunn County Thursday afternoon.
Police Chief Eric Atkinson said the department is working with the County Sheriff’s office, County Human Services and a number of non-profits along with UW-Stout on Project Hope.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Health, Dunn County is one of the counties seeing higher than average number of people getting treatment for opioid-related addiction.
The Mayor of Menomonie Randy Knacck said drug abuse is something he has seen personally and wants something to be done.
“I grew up in Menomonie Wisconsin, I’ve had friends that have gotten addicted to methamphetamines. I’ve had people call and talk to me about their kids, or their neighbors, or their employers or employees and methamphetamines and other drug addictions… we have to get a handle on it,” said Knacck.
Chief Atkinson said Project Hope has a central component to it, and it is the Quick Response Team.
“The quick response team is a team made up of law enforcement, social workers, peer advisors, paramedics. Project hope was designed on four strategic pillars: prevention, treatment, harm reduction and enforcement,” said Chief Atkinson.
One concern is reaching out to people dealing with drug abuse beyond the city limits. Officers with the Menomonie Police Dept. will have to get permission from the Dunn County Sheriff’s office and be paired with one of their deputies.
“They’re in plain clothes. They’re specially trained to work with people that have substance abuse disorders,” said Chief Atkinson.
They won’t have jurisdiction but Chief Atkinson said that should not be an issue since the officers with the Quick Response Team are working with others to help those addicted to drugs.
Another component of the program involves check-ins to better assist those who are accepting help from Project Hope.
“What we do is provide wrap around services,” said Chief Atkinson.
Those services address other issues that can get in the way of recovery. That can include issues with shelter, access to food and even transportation.
Chief Atkinson said the hope is for the outcome to be a decrease in crime, improvement to quality of life and to save lives.
“There’s no greater purpose than preserving someone’s life,” said Chief Atkinson.
In order to do any of that however, the officers with the Quick Response Team will have to gain something important from those they are trying to help, and that is their trust.
“I think it’s going to take some time… We want to help them in whatever way we can, and that starts small,” said Rebecca Merryfield. She is with the County Sheriff’s office, and she said transparency is key. “There’s going to be instances where we probably arrested individuals we are talking with… Now we understand that as agencies we’d rather help than hurt.”
Convincing those with a drug addiction that law enforcement is there to help is something Aaron Bergh with Menomonie Police said will be hard. That is because of the fear of arrest and prosecution since drug possession and use is not decriminalized in Dunn County or Menomonie.
“it’s critical to understand that this is a component to the overall problem. This is not going to replace drug enforcement. It’s not going to replace those drug investigations those investigators are out there working on,” said Bergh.
Both Bergh and Merryfield said they intend to try anyway.
“We give them the information, our personal squad cell phones are on there. They can reach out when they are ready, or do believe that we might have resources they might need,” said Merryfield.
“When we talk with them as a team, you get that reassurance that we’re not there to arrest, that we’re truly there,” said Bergh.
Chief Atkinson said there are programs to help those getting out of incarceration get back to their lives, but the stain of conviction is something his department cannot help with.
“That’s handled through either the circuit court, or the state depending on which levels you want to make those changes. Unfortunately we don’t have that power to do that,” said Chief Atkinson.
For now, he said drug offenses are handled at the discretion of officers.
The Angels of Red Cedar is also involved in the program, and their role is to offer safe spaces in the county for those facing addiction to hand in drugs and paraphernalia without the fear of arrest or prosecution.