Southern Indiana

Law enforcement agencies in Southern Indiana are teaming up with mental health and substance use treatment specialists this year to address the region’s opioid crisis in a new way.

Substance use has been one of the leading health problems in Indiana over the last decade. The issue came to a head in 2015, when injection drug use caused the state’s worst ever HIV outbreak.

Overdose rates fell in the years that followed, until the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in the Ohio Valley region. Denise Poukish, senior vice president of forensic services at LifeSpring Health Systems, said the problem continues to worsen.

“Jeffersonville Police were responding to probably about 170 overdoses just in Jeffersonville city limits last year, so the volume is pretty high,” Poukish said. “Of course, that number has ticked up since COVID. So this year, we’re already even beyond what we were seeing last year.

Poukish said that the high number of 911 calls related to substance use creates difficult situations for law enforcement and people who use drugs alike. It can overwhelm police, who arrest people rather than diverting them to mental health treatment.

But a new partnership between the Jeffersonville Police Department (JPD) and LifeSpring, a treatment provider in Southern Indiana, will give officers new options during such calls. It’s funded by a $750,000 grant from the Department of Justice.

LifeSpring plans to hire a team of four social workers and peer recovery specialists. Poukish said the team will work alongside police to distribute Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and direct people to treatment, syringe exchange programs and other services.

“Police want to be out there helping people, but sometimes they just don’t know where the resources are, and they’re also really overwhelmed,” she said. “Having social workers involved to help kind of relieves the burden of police to have to try to figure that out at the scene.

Assistant Police Chief Scott McVoy said LifeSpring officials met with JPD officers and supervisors for an initial training session about the partnership in January. The program will start rolling out in June, and be fully operational by July 1. 

Officers will respond to calls without a LifeSpring specialist and request help from the team at their own discretion. But McVoy said there are not yet any set guidelines for what would prompt that. 

“This is a living, breathing type of program where I expect more continual training,” McVoy said. “We all talk about baby steps. I see this growing over the course of time into a very well-run program. It’s just in its infancy now, and we’re just trying to hammer out some of the logistical and specific details.

McVoy said having a social worker or recovery specialist involved in 911 response efforts will benefit people who may not want to speak with police. The LifeSpring team can immediately begin working with the person at the scene if warranted, but much of the outreach will be conducted through follow-up visits. 

“They may feel like they’re going to be in trouble or they violated some law, but maybe after a little bit of time, they will be willing to speak to a third-party person,” McVoy said.

Clark County Judge Dan Moore is reinstating a similar countywide program that he previously implemented in 2009, during his first term. The county’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) will focus more broadly on mental health, though substance use will also be a large component. But instead of bringing in a third-party group, CIT will be a unit of specially-trained police officers.

Amanda Beam, programs director at the Clark County Jail, is the CIT coordinator. She said police officers from agencies across the county will undergo a 40-hour training session on de-escalation and identifying mental illness. Those officers can choose to take people in crisis to a local treatment partner, like Wellstone Regional Hospital, for an evaluation — instead of jail.

“Prison and jail is really not a place for folks who do have mental illness who aren’t committing violent crime,” Beam said. “It’s a lot easier to get them the help that they need on the outside. Because when you bring them into the criminal justice system, that adds a lot of troubles to an already hard life.

But the CIT program doesn’t mean people won’t face consequences for criminal activity. Chief Deputy Scottie Maples of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office said people who are violent or who have committed property crimes will still go to jail.

But Maples said diverting non-violent people who’ve committed low-level crimes to treatment will help preserve jail resources that would otherwise go towards detox and other medical treatment. He said trespassing is a common reason police have to make repeat visits to people who may be using drugs or in crisis.

“And then the second time [police] show up, they take them to jail for a small-level misdemeanor, whereas this program will hopefully also have a resource where you can reach out to the crisis team, and they will respond and see if there’s a better-suited remedy for that situation,” Maples said.

Training for Clark County’s Crisis Intervention Team could start by late fall.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.