PIKEVILLE – It’s not about getting soft on crime. It’s about getting smart about dealing with the substance abuse problems facing southern and eastern Kentucky.

That message, from Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rick Sanders, was stressed several times during a forum in Pikeville March 9 to discuss implementation of a pilot program – The Angel Initiative – designed to help those in crisis from a drug addiction receive treatment.

View photos from the forum.

“It’s all about helping people before they get into the justice system. Let’s start talking about what we can do to help people,” Sanders said. “It works by having someone come to the police station and say, ‘I need help,’ without fear of being arrested. The state police are going to open their doors to addicts. Trust me, that’s different.”

“This is very forward-thinking for law enforcement,” said Captain Jennifer Sandlin, commander of Pikeville Post 9, who is coordinating implementation of the pilot program. She noted most crime can be traced back to the region’s drug problem, “so why wouldn’t we do a program like this?”

“I feel very positive about the support that we were shown today from the community,” Sandlin said. “It shows you that people in this area really want to help with the addiction problem.”

More than 100 people representing law enforcement, treatment facilities, state and federal officials, faith-based organizations, and prosecutors attended the four-hour forum, presented by the KSP and Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet in partnership with Operation UNITE.

In addition to Sanders and Sandlin, answering questions about initiative were Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley, Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy Director Van Ingram, UNITE Deputy Director Tom Vicini, and UNITE Education and Treatment Director Debbie Trusty.

“We are losing a commuter plane of people a day to (drug) overdoses,” Tilley stated, adding The Angel Initiative will be one more tool available to help those battling a substance use disorder.

Sergeant Brittney Garrett, of the Jeffersontown Police Department, shared information about how her department implemented The Angel Initiative in that community.

“The first thing we realized is the need for culture change,” Garrett said. “At first, people were very skeptical.”

A collaborative effort by law enforcement, treatment centers and other community support agencies, however, quickly eased those concerns and the program is working.

In Northern Kentucky, the Angel Program is also seeing initial success, noted Kelly Pompilio, a police social worker with the City of Alexandria.

The Angel Initiative is modeled after a program started in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in June 2015. One year after inception, Glocester had referred more than 450 people into treatment and saw a 33 percent reduction in its property crime rates.

Under the Pikeville program, if a person with an addiction voluntarily comes into the KSP Post seeking help, and they do not have any criminal charges pending, they will be paired with a volunteer “Angel” who will help guide them through the process of getting treatment.

If they have drugs or drug paraphernalia with them, the police will dispose of it for them without fear of being arrested or charged with a crime.

“We are here today because we know what it means to hurt,” said Nancy Hale, President/CEO of Operation UNITE. “This program will restore hope – hope that is so basic to life.”

The “hope” that Hale spoke of was echoed by Forest Quillen and Tara Hendrickson, both of whom presented their stories of addiction and recovery.

“There are moments in our lives when we become vulnerable,” Quillen said. “This (program) will be an opportunity (for people) to get help.”

Hendrickson agreed. “From an addict’s point of view, if I decide I want help I want it today. If you make me wait until tomorrow, I won’t need it any more.”

“To me, this is a very positive way to help people when they need help,” said Trusty, UNITE’s treatment and education director. “Imagine if you could get someone into treatment in just a few hours, what an impact you can have.”

Sandlin explained that in the weeks to come officials would be compiling the necessary forms, working out procedures to follow when someone comes into the Pikeville Post, and training those who will be involved in the project.

At this time there is not a specific date for The Angel Initiative to begin.

The Pikeville KSP Post serves Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin, Martin and Pike counties.

To view a story on the forum presented by WEKB television Click here.