A View of the Epidemic: For Lebanon Cops, Opioid Calls Are ‘Everyday Life Now’

  • Lebanon Police Cpl. Michael Roberts, left, tests cocaine with Sgt. Brady Harwood at the station in Lebanon, N.H., on Feb. 15, 2018. The drug was recovered during an arrest. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/17/2018 11:00:14 PM
Modified: 2/19/2018 11:06:12 AM

Lebanon — It wasn’t all that long ago, Lebanon Police Cpl. Michael Roberts recalls, that if he came upon someone napping in a car while he was out on patrol, he could leave the person to sleep in peace. He took notice, but he moved on.

Now, he has no choice: He is obliged to rouse the individual to make sure he or she is alive and well.

“We drive into plazas and if someone is taking a nap in a car, we stop and check on them to make sure it’s not an overdose,” Roberts said in a recent interview. “That is new, and it is weird explaining that to people. They are napping — they’re just napping — and it’s, ‘Sorry, just checking to make sure you’re not an overdose.’ ... Something I didn’t think I would be dealing with, but that’s routine every day now.”

This isn’t the only way the opioid epidemic has affected the working routines of Roberts and the 33 other officers of the Lebanon Police Department, who cover a city with a residential population of about 13,500 that surges to 30,000 during the daytime.

Roberts, 36, who supervises the patrol department, has been a police officer for 16 years. All but one of them have been spent in Lebanon.

Before the opioid epidemic hit hard roughly four years ago, Roberts said, it was rare for him or another officer to respond to an overdose.

“We are not overrun with them, say like Manchester, but we do have our share,” Roberts said. “The new guys that are here, that is what their normal is. For us (senior officers), it is something new that we never had to respond to so much.”

Responding to more overdoses means officers must take additional precautions. Heroin is often cut with other more powerful substances, such as fentanyl, that can be lethal if even tiny quantities are ingested. Mere exposure to skin also is a concern.

“If we respond to a suspected overdose or are dealing somehow with something that we think might be an opiate-based crime, we will put a mask on and that is just for any exposure that we may have airborne. We wear gloves just for any exposure to loose powder, something getting on our skin,” Roberts said.

As would be expected, officers are now responding to more drug-related calls than they did before the epidemic hit, and the calls are not just about overdoses or drug busts. The impact of the opioid epidemic on the department’s workload is cumulative — and significant.

In 2017, there were 372 drug-related crimes recorded in the city, a roughly 490 percent increase from the 63 drug crimes in 2000. Also in 2017, the department tallied 187 shoplifting crimes, an 82 percent increase from 103 shoplifting crimes in 2000.

“We deal with a lot of retail theft in especially the (Route) 12A area. When loss prevention catches them, they call us and then when we would arrest them. We would find signs … that they were trying to support their habit,” Roberts said. “We are dealing with a lot more petty crime, car break-ins, people leaving their car unlocked at night, and we have a lot of people digging for change or whatever they can steal.”

More drug-related crimes tax the Lebanon Police Department’s staff, and an increase in crimes means more investigations, Roberts said. Meanwhile, the detective division is working continuously to crack down on drug dealers in an attempt to get opioids out of the community.

Any time there is a suspected overdose — or someone sleeping in a car — two officers respond to the call out of precaution. And that means there’s one less officer to devote to all other types of calls, Roberts said.

When Roberts started in Lebanon there wasn’t a big push at the department to train and have on staff a “drug recognition expert,” or DRE, who specializes in identifying the signs that someone is under the influence of drugs.

An officer with that qualification is often called out in the event a driver shows signs of impairment but testing doesn’t indicate a blood alcohol level, for example.

Three and a half years ago Roberts went through the training to become a drug recognition expert, and he currently is the department’s only officer with the certification.

Roberts’ training has helped him understand addiction and the people it afflicts.

“When they are addicted to drugs, it is hard to get off, and I convey that to people I arrest. One of my jobs, it sounds awful, but I try to befriend them to get information to further our cause, our cause being to find people who are selling these drugs,” Roberts said. “When I first started, I was more hard on people. Now, I am more sympathetic, I think, and try to work with them. Especially, if you catch someone with just a little bit. It is still a crime, we are still going to enforce the laws, but you want to get them treatment.”

But being more informed about the nature of addiction doesn’t eliminate the aggravation that often comes with dealing with people who are addicted.

“It is frustrating when you see the same guy over and over and over again that might be dealing and just not trying to help themselves,” Roberts said. “We have programs that we try to get them in. We are one part of a complex issue here.”

Dealing with an overdose can be especially trying, he said. In such situations, a first responder generally administers naloxone, which reverses the opioid’s effects and causes a seemingly lifeless person to revive. Roberts described a typical exchange: “I talk to them, ‘You need to go to the hospital.’ ‘Oh, I’m fine.’ ‘No, literally, we did CPR on you and you need to go to the hospital,’ ” he said.

“Most people are good and will go, but we have had to talk people into it.”

Last year, Lebanon police and fire personnel used naloxone to revive the same Lebanon resident five times within just a few months.

“Seeing people that are essentially dead that your guys or you are working CPR on and then 10 minutes later they are awake and fine, ...” Roberts said. “It is a situation that I never thought I would see.”

Where the drugs are coming from and how the substances are being sold also have changed.

When heroin sales increased significantly years ago, the majority was coming up the Interstate 91 corridor from the Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., areas, Roberts said. Now, drugs also are frequently delivered via Interstate 89 from the Manchester, N.H., and Lawrence, Mass., areas.

Roberts knows that because of the way the drugs are packaged, he said. Drugs coming from western Massachusetts are typically packaged in waxed paper bags that are often bundled in 10-bag increments. Drugs coming from the east, however, are usually packaged by the gram and come in larger chunks.

“It’s everyday life now for a Lebanon officer to deal with some kind of opiate crime or someone with opiate-based drugs, whether it’s fentanyl, heroin or suboxone or methadone or any number of pills that they might have,” Roberts said. “It is almost every day, some sort of involvement with it.”

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@vnews.com or 603- 727-3248.

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