Sussex chiefs’ group eyes alternatives to incarceration in addiction, mental cases

SUSSEX COUNTY — Local law enforcement in Sussex County is pitching an alternative approach to incarceration when dealing with individuals with addiction and/or mental health issues.

Chiefs representing several departments attended the April 2 presentation of the Sussex County Police Chiefs Association to Sussex County Council.

The crux of the presentation was that law enforcement should consider alternatives to incarceration for those individuals needing and seeking treatment.

“Our ability to lock people up, we can do that. The ability to help people that are asking for help is where we realize that we need to improve our efforts,” said Milton Police Chief Robert Longo, president of the county chiefs’ association. “We’re going to reach out to the county — work with the county and state on that effort.”

“We believe that if somebody wants help, that is our moral obligation to help out anybody,” said Chief Longo.

Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes, whose department recently enlisted the assistance and expertise of a licensed mental health clinician through a grant program, agreed wholeheartedly.

“There is a crisis amongst us in our communities, in our local communities, in our county and in our state and our country. And that is the opioid crisis,” said Chief Hughes, the association’s vice president.

Chief Longo noted that while the county population grew at 2.35 percent, the number of complaints from 2015-18 increased by 16.8 percent.

Crime often is driven by addiction and the chiefs’ plan is to also combat the addiction.

“Quite frankly a person who is in the throes of addiction, the brain changes, the chemistry of the brain changes. They are not making good decisions anymore. They are not making decisions that we feel are good decisions, and they are leading down a path to committing criminal acts,” said Chief Hughes. “Often times because of this change in the brain, they can’t help themselves. That is not an excuse. But therein lies the driver. For us here in Georgetown we handle 400 or so shoplifting complaints from one store per year. The vast majority are driven to fuel an addiction.”

“This affects every community large and small within our county, whether incorporated or not. It also affects our homelessness. People lose everything they have for the drugs and mental health,” said Chief Longo.

“Sussex County police chiefs have collectively come together and we’re establishing a plan that we would like to present in the future to county council, as an alternative to incarceration based upon the new sentencing guidelines that come out …,” Chief Longo said.

Chiefs Long and Hughes both thanked the county and council for their longstanding support. Sussex County government annually budgets substantial funding that is awarded to each of the county’s local police agencies.

Chief Hughes says this alternative concept is nothing new. He said he had concerns during his long career with Delaware State Police.

“For years as a trooper I often complained. We would say, ‘Police officers aren’t social workers.’ But yet we were tasked with certain things within that realm,” said Chief Hughes. “Doesn’t it make sense to bring in the social workers in? We have that interjection of the mental health piece on the front end and we try to identify folks before there is a crime committed.”

Chief Hughes informed council he is in the grant process to continue funding for the mental health clinician, Michelle Robinson. She was assigned to the police department by way of Connections, and works about 30 hours per week, which includes some patrol ride-alongs.

Resources for mental health treatment have increased with the opening of the new SUN Behavioral Health hospital in Georgetown, along with other services.

Police chiefs are working with other partners and other stakeholders to collaborate and find additional resources to combat that “to get to root cause and move forward,” said Chief Hughes. “We’ve got to find a different model. These are people. We need to treat our brothers and sisters as people.”

In light of recent public commentary on homelessness before council, county councilman John Rieley asked Chief Hughes about a possible link to the opioid problem. “From your perspective, what is the relationship there?” he said.

Chief Hughes assumed the Georgetown chief’s position in May 2015 after his career with state police and then deputy secretary for homeland security.

“I was struck when I came to Georgetown by the homelessness. I drove through. I lived in Millsboro. I drove to Dover and I didn’t pay attention,” said Chief Hughes. “I also want to make perfectly clear that not every person that is homeless is suffering from a substance abuse. But we do see homelessness here in Georgetown. I won’t speak for the other municipalities. We try to reach out to those folks and try to find additional resources. You recently probably heard about the camps behind Walmart. There are a few tents out there. We are working with some individuals there to try to find some additional resources because that property is going to be developed.”

“It is an issue,” said Chief Hughes. “We are trying to partner with folks and find a better way for them. Again, a lot of it does come down to the affordability …”

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