President Donald Trump is not often accused of empathy. But even he was obviously touched by the man he shared a stage with in Atlanta last week.
The occasion was a drug addiction summit aimed at the nation’s current opioid crisis. Tom Murphy, a police narcotics investigator for the state of Virginia, stood beside Trump and told of the son he had lost – first to prescription opioids, and finally to heroin laced with fentanyl.
“People talk about stigma associated with opioids, heroin, drugs. There is a stigma, and the stigma needs to stop,” Murphy said. He pointed to one of the three bracelets he wears on his wrists.
“It says, ‘Every overdose is someone’s child.’ Don’t judge,” Murphy said. “Educate.”
This was a law enforcement officer calling for a shift in the way drug addiction is approached — by his fellow police officers across the country. In the audience, listening to Murphy, was Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn.
Wholly by coincidence, only the day before, Flynn had confirmed that his city’s police force would be following the very path suggested by Murphy. Flynn said his department would reassign the three officers it currently contributes to the Marietta, Cobb and Smyrna Organized Crime Task Force Narcotics Unit.
This is a task force that dates to 1980, before crack cocaine and the era of mass incarceration for drug offenses. Before Nancy Reagan advised us to “just say no.”
What intrigued me was the final line in the press release from the Marietta police chief, announcing the shift: “Evidence-based policing is doing things that work.”
And so, a few hours after President Trump had headed for the airport, I was in Flynn’s Marietta office.
“We have come to the realization with this opioid crisis, that drug addicts — yes, they’ve committed a crime. You have to illegally possess a drug to consume it,” Flynn said. “But beyond that, they’re not robbers. If you look at it that way, they are a public health problem as opposed to a public safety problem. They’re not out there hurting people.”
“I’m working on a strategy to stress intervention more,” Flynn said. On minor, non-violent drug charges, the Marietta chief has given his officers the discretion to refer their collars directly to drug treatment, or to one of Cobb County’s many “accountability” courts that stress treatment over incarceration.
“There are better solutions than ‘hook ‘em and book ‘em.’ We’re dealing with a much bigger crisis here,” Flynn said.
The Marietta police chief insists that his shift in strategy is no condemnation of the drug task force that he’s pulling out of – or those who lead it.
“They do important work. But they are set up and designed to do interdiction only. That’s not a fault, that’s not a criticism,” Flynn said. “They arrest a lot of bad guys.”
And that will be the case, the police chief conceded, as long as I-75 runs through Cobb County.
But Flynn does have a reputation for being a thinking person’s police chief. His career dates to Miami and the cocaine invasion of the 1990s. He was named the 2017 chief of the year by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.
Flynn confesses to innovation, and a willingness to be guided by statistics. If a youth program can generate numbers indicating that it keeps kids out of trouble, you do more of it. If it can’t, you move on.
George Mason University in Virginia has something called the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. Flynn has been inducted into its hall of fame. In remarks posted on the center’s web site, Flynn points to the way police once handled domestic disputes. Cops would calm all parties down, then walk away.
The rate of at-home killings didn’t budge.
“That dismal situation changed when research revealed that, in domestic violence cases where the police arrested the aggressor, despite low prosecution rates, the rate of subsequent domestic homicide showed a sharp decline,” Flynn wrote then.
In our interview, Marietta’s police chief said his shift in drug enforcement strategy is backed by his bosses — Mayor Steve “Thunder” Tumlin and the Marietta City Council. “A good police chief is politically astute, but not political,” Flynn said.
And yet it can’t be denied that Flynn’s move comes as Cobb County sits on the cusp of a major political shift. The county has gone Democratic in the last two election cycles. Every major countywide office, all currently held by Republicans, will be up for grabs in 2020.
Police chiefs and sheriffs don’t always walk in lockstep. The former are employed by appointment. The latter are elected – a blend of law enforcement and politics.
Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren has announced his intention to seek re-election next year. He’s been sheriff since 2005, but his career with the department dates to 1977. Warren has a tough-on-crime reputation that – at least in the past – has gone down well with voters. Particularly when it comes to illegal immigration.
Several law enforcement officials connected to the drug task force in Cobb released carefully phrased responses to Flynn’s decision to seek an independent path.
As sheriff, Warren’s reaction was the most important. The wording suggests he is skeptical of Marietta’s innovation.
“Addressing the problem of drug addiction in our community is best accomplished as a countywide partnership,” Warren wrote. “The many crimes that result from [the] buying and selling of drugs requires a consistent, steadfast, and unified approach.”
Clearly, more and more people think that treating drug addiction as a disease is effective, even smart public policy. But you still have some wondering if it’s smart electoral policy in a county that may or may not be Republican.
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