ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. (WHTM) — A new program in Lancaster County is trying to reach more people struggling with addiction by putting mental health and addiction treatment providers in patrol vehicles with police officers.
The ride-along project has been in the works for a few years and kicked off at the beginning of September. It builds on an existing partnership between the treatment provider Blueprints for Addiction Recovery and several Lancaster County police departments. abc27 took a behind-the-scenes look in Elizabethtown.
The project is aimed at helping police better handle mental health and addiction crises.
“About 10 percent of our calls end up having some sort of a connection to either substance use or mental health,” Elizabethtown police chief Edward Cunningham said.
When Cunningham started his career 30 years ago, he, along with most of law enforcement, had a very different attitude towards people struggling with addiction.
“We looked at them as if they were the enemy,” he said. “It was either handcuffs or ambulances.”
Over the years, that outlook changed, but Cunningham said police still had few options for how to handle cases of substance abuse.
“For a long time, I’ve known that jail is not the answer, but we didn’t have anything else to do,” he said.
Efforts to expand those options led Cunningham to partnerships with people like Christopher Dreisbach.
“I lost several hundred days of my life as a result of having substance use disorder and the justice system not knowing how to handle it,” Dreisbach said.
Dreisbach struggled with addiction himself, landing in jail several times. After going sober, he started Blueprints for Addiction Recovery, which provides resources to others struggling.
“We are here for you 24/7,” Dreisbach said.
In September, he started this ride-along project, pairing treatment providers with police.
“Really just to assist them however I can,” he said. “It never hurts to have four eyes instead of two.”
Cunningham and Dreisbach say having a provider on scene with an officer builds trust.
“When I’m in the throes of my addiction or I’m struggling, I don’t trust guys who are wearing a uniform like Ed Cunningham,” Dreisbach said. “[Providers are] able to level with the individual who’s struggling and say, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I’m with you,'”
“We have the ability for the uniformed officer to take a step back,” Cunningham said. “We can prove to the community that we actually do care.”
The ride-along project is new, but it builds on other projects like Second Chance PA, a “pre-arrest diversion” program which allows police to send people struggling with addiction or mental health to receive treatment instead of putting them in jail.
Both Cunningham and Dreisbach said those projects have been successful, and they have already seen success with the ride-alongs.
“I hope that other counties take note and look at this as a model of how to treat addiction and how to treat individuals who are struggling,” Dreisbach said.
This ride-along partnership only exists in eight police departments in Lancaster County for now, but Dreisback said he hopes to expand the project to other counties in the Midstate and across the Commonwealth.