Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini touted a more compassionate approach to drug cases involving arrestees with addiction problems through the use of diversion and prevention programs during his address of the Southampton Town Opioid Addiction Task Force last Wednesday at Southampton High School.
“To talk with clarity, as the chief law enforcement official in the county, let me be clear, addiction is a disease and it must be treated accordingly,” Sini told a group of about 150 people gathered for the task force’s “It Hits Home Part Two” public forum. “There certainly is an important role for traditional law enforcement on the supply side — targeting drug dealers, targeting drug traffickers — but we are not going to arrest ourselves out of this epidemic. It is a public health issue, first and foremost, and we need to allow that concept to inform our policies, both on the enforcement and on the prevention, treatment, and the recovery side.”
Sini, who was Suffolk County Police Commissioner before taking office this January, said county law enforcement works with the US Drug Enforcement Agency to target drug traffickers. He noted much of the heroin entering Suffolk comes through New York City from Central and South America, though some originates in the Middle East. The county is now experiencing a full-blown epidemic of fentanyl, a synthetic form of heroin, and the dangerous aspect of it is that it can be manufactured anywhere, he said.
“Typically, it is made in China,” he said, noting that the drug also comes from other parts of Asia, before it is smuggled, often mailed to the US.
The county has increased resources such as detectives in precincts investigating drug cases, and they have rolled out a new hotline, 631-852-NARC, a partnership with Suffolk County Crime Stoppers, which offers cash rewards for tips, and has increased search warrants by 250 percent.
A new pilot program has also been started in the 6th Precinct in Selden, in which field intelligence officers focus on non-fatal overdoses, and the county started the Long Island Heroin Task Force along with Southampton Town Police Chief Steven Skrynecki when he was still with the Nassau County Police Department.
The DA’s office also worked toward the first murder conviction in the state for drug dealer who caused a fatal overdose by selling the person drugs.
But in cases where addicts are involved, the county is taking a different approach by looking into what Sini refers to as a spectrum of opportunities for intervention based on the varying levels of an individual’s contact with law enforcement.
“There is someone who is clearly using and they haven’t yet been arrested. There is someone who has been arrested, but they haven’t gone through the system. There are people who are in jail.
There are people who are getting out of jail. And in every single one of those opportunities, law enforcement needs to be involved and doing everything it can to incentivize treatment and recovery,” Sini said.
At the police department, Sini developed Preventing Incarceration Via Opportunities for Treatment, or the PIVOT program, in which police refer addicted people to the Long Island Center for Alcohol and Drug Dependency, and the department also has relationships with facilities to guarantee a bed for anyone who accepts treatment. The program is supported by asset forfeiture funds seized from criminals.
“So, it’s not just how do I build a case against someone if we know they are involved in using drugs, it’s quite the opposite. How can I help this person?” he said.
Ten percent of people identified by law enforcement were referred for interaction with LICADD and enrollment in a facility, Sini said. The county has since made contact with most of them. Some have accepted treatment, and many others accepted counseling, but lost contact, according to Sini. The county is still collecting data, but Sini remains optimistic, he said.
The county is presently in the development phase of a post-arrest diversion program, which will allow people who become engaged in a treatment program to avoid jail time, he said.
“There are programs like this throughout the country and they have had great results. So, that is the next step on that spectrum for opportunities for prevention, but at the end of the day the message is that we are in one of the worst epidemics the country has ever seen,” he said, noting there are some reasons to be optimistic due to recent overdose statistics.
Sini said that one of the biggest things that can be done on this issue is “solid” K-12 drug prevention programs, like Too Good For Drugs. “That will not only help us get out of this epidemic but it will prevent the next one,” he said.
Pam Stark, a retired Nassau County Police Detective, advocates for drug prevention programs such as Too Good For Drugs, which aims to address the self-esteem issues that lead to drug use in young people, steering them instead toward other activities. The program helps with setting goals, developing coping skills, and problem-solving through role-playing in the older grades.
It’s a curriculum that can be used to address a variety of issues such as bullying, and also for gang intervention.
“It teaches all the great skills that people need,” she said.
Chief Skrynecki said the department’s Police Explorers, which is a group for youngsters with an interest in law enforcement, will be more visible in the community, attending events such as upcoming drug take-backs.
“We think it is a really good thing for the youth to be talking with youth, particularly with youth like these men and women, who are on the right track,” he said.