City police launch new ‘Schenectady Cares’ program to help addicts into recovery

'Schenectady Cares' up and running
Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann speaks during a press conference for the Schenectady Cares Program.
Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann speaks during a press conference for the Schenectady Cares Program.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — The village of Chatham has barely 2,000 people. 

But in the three years since the Police Department introduced a diversionary program to steer addicts into recovery, 225 people from eight counties have received treatment.

“We have a 100 percent success rate of getting someone into treatment,” said Chatham Police Chief Peter Volkmann, architect of the “Chatham Cares 4 U” program.

The city of Schenectady, which is home to about 66,000 people, is also hoping for that type of success.

“Recovery works,” Volkmann said. “I want everyone in this room to know that.”

The program, known as a Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative model, has roots in Gloucester, Mass., and has caught on with police forces across the state. 

Police in Chatham, which is located 25 miles south of Albany, had no other choice. With a tiny operating budget and part-time staff, the department was besieged by the epidemic, which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths across the U.S.

Volkmann was a key influence for the Schenectady Police Department in launching a similar program, “Schenectady Cares,” which went live on Tuesday.

Those struggling with addiction — not just opiate-related — can now come to the Liberty Street headquarters, turn over their drugs and be steered into a recovery program by a team of volunteers and professionals. 

Once met with a training city police officer, staff from New Choices will help navigate the complexities of recovery, from medical insurance to locating outpatient programs, and determine the best course of action. 

Catholic Charities will assist on nights and weekends.

Approaches will be tailored for each person, said Stuart Rosenblatt, executive director of New Choices. 

For some, that may mean transfer to a 28-day outpatient program. Some may benefit from medically-assisted withdrawal at an emergency room, while others may require admittance at a detox facility. Some placements may take several days.

The program also makes use of volunteer “angels.”

Team Schenectady has trained six volunteers, people with no law enforcement ties, to stay with the person and offer encouragement until a service provider arrives.  

“We want to try to sustain the motivation that prompted them to come here,” Rosenblatt said.

Rosenblatt said more services are available now than several years ago as a result of the center’s mobile Center of Treatment Innovation Project, known as COTI, which can deploy resources and outreach beyond the “four walls” of the new State Street facility.

Law enforcement also acknowledged such a program would be considered radical just a decade ago.

But Schenectady City Police Chief Eric Clifford is also clear-eyed about fighting the epidemic from a policing perspective.

“We’re taking away the dealers’ demand for drugs,” he said.

Those seeking help will not be charged for drug possession, which will be entered into evidence and destroyed.

But Schenectady Cares is not an amnesty program: Any active warrants for earlier charges must be addressed before people can enter the program.

SPD said it didn’t have any data immediately available that could illustrate the scope of the city’s addiction problem, but as users have shifted from prescription pills to heroin and fentanyl, heroin presents a chronic challenge. 

Speakers also talked about the impact the drug epidemic has on the first responders battling it. Megan Eden, chairperson of Team Schenectady, noted first responders and law enforcement personnel on the front lines can often be overlooked. 

“I think we forget first responders are victims as well,” she said. 

Clifford himself has lost friends to an overdose and suicide. 

The chief said has wanted to pursue the program since taking the reins of the department three years ago, but only recently was he able to marshal the resources to build up an expansive web of community participants.

The University at Albany’s School of Public Health will provide research assistance, working with city police to collect data on the program that will ideally help determine needs, identify barriers and refine the approach in Schenectady and other communities.

Volkmann called the program a “leap of faith” for city police, but he felt confident crime would go down as a result. 

He’s a recovering alcoholic himself and hasn’t had a drink since Sept. 2, 1995, he said.

“I’m just a person in long-term recovery trying to pay it forward for someone who saved my life,” he said.

Even if one death is prevented as a result of Schenectady Cares, and one person diverted away from a lifetime of active addiction, it’s worth it, he said.

“Every day I pray,” he said. “Just one more.”

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