Police In Western Mass. Keep Knocking On Drug Users' Doors Until They're Ready For Help
Emily Ligawiec, 29, has to sign visitors in to her recovery program in a grand Victorian house run by the Gandara Center in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
She’s been living there since getting out of a detox program last fall. She had to give up her phone for two weeks and only recently got car privileges.
“We get 24, 48, 72 hour passes every weekend,” she said.
Ligawiec doesn’t mind the restrictions. She’s grateful she's alive to follow them, after a decade of serious addiction.
“I had gone down a pretty dark path,” she said.
Ligawiec traces her turnaround to a 911 call last year.
High on heroin, she'd stolen her mother’s car in Ware, Massachusetts. When she returned it a few hours later, Officer John Cacela was waiting in the driveway.
In the past, Cacela might have immediately read Ligawiec her rights.
“Because for the longest time, the whole idea was, you know, arrest, arrest,” he said. “But we're slowly learning that we can't arrest our way out of this problem.”
Instead, Cacela tapped on the car window, and told Ligawiec she wasn't in trouble. She didn’t believe him.
“I sat in my car, actually, and closed a window on him a couple of times,” Ligaweic said. “And then I opened it a crack, like, ‘What do you want?’ And he stood there patiently, and he said, ‘I'm here to help you. I want to help you.’ And I would roll up my window and look the other way.”
Through the glass, Cacela explained he was part of a program called the Drug Addiction and Recovery Team – known as DART – and asked if he could try her another time.
“He came back to my house again and again and again,” Ligaweic said.
This is fairly typical for the DART program, a recent partnership between police and public health.
For people using drugs, a 911 call is often the first time they get on the radar of any authority. In Ligaweic’s case, it was for theft. In many cases, the call is for an overdose.
Traditionally, if the person survived the overdose, they were charged with possession or sent to the hospital, according to Northampton Officer Adam Van Buskirk.
“That's what you did. Those were your two options,” he said.
Van Buskirk wanted a new option. So in 2016, he worked with Hampshire Hope, an addiction-prevention coalition based at the city health department, to develop the DART program. They started training police on a voluntary basis.
The basic idea is this: after the immediate crisis is over, officers follow up with drug users and offer help. That could be a warm bed for the night, the name of a recovery coach, or a ride to detox. They'll also refer people to needle exchange programs and give out the overdose rescue drug Narcan.
“That way, if there is a day where you do want to stop using drugs, and you do want to get into recovery,” Van Buskirk said, “you're going to be alive to see that day.”
DART operates in 13 cities in Hampshire County, and it’s expanding into nearby Hampden County. More than 150 cities across Massachusetts have adopted their own versions of what’s often called post-overdose outreach.
But even as police get used to this nonjudgmental role, it’s not always an easy sell to drug users.
“Some people are very open and they'll talk to you,” said Jeffrey Goulet, a DART officer with the South Hadley police. “Other people [say], ‘Get out of here. I don't want your help, stupid cops.’”
Not everyone is ready to stop using drugs and go into treatment, Goulet said.
“So that's another thing that we learned — just the way people think, as far as the people who are using,” he said.
‘I don’t do well with force’
Ligawiec’s addiction story began like many others: A painkiller prescription led to illegal pills she bought on the street.
“I was seeing thousands and thousands of, you know, blue little perc 30s right in front of my face,” she said. “And I was gonna be sick the next day if I didn't have more.”
By the time Ligawiec stole her mother’s car, she'd lost her job, her apartment, her fiancé, and she hadn't taken a shower in six months.
“I bathed myself at the sink. I didn't brush my teeth for weeks at a time,” she said.
By then, Ligawiec was shooting heroin, aware that the more dangerous drug fentanyl was making its way into the street supply.
But even after Officer Cacela responded to her mother’s 911 call, Ligaweic wasn’t ready to accept help — certainly not from law enforcement.
“At first, I definitely was skeptical, like, ‘Oh, my God. Officer who? I'm gonna call an officer for help and admit that I have a problem?’”
Cacela was used to that reaction.
“They almost all say yes [to help], but I would say about half of them actually mean it,” he said. “So at the beginning, there was a lot of me chasing people around.”
Ligaweic would often pretend not to be home when Cacela showed up. But after several weeks, he talked her into going with him to Dunkin Donuts, where he introduced her to a recovery coach named Susan Daley.
They gave Ligaweic a plastic bottle of Narcan, which she didn't want her parents to see — she threw it in her bedroom trash. And she didn’t want to go to rehab.
“If it had been forced, you know — I don't do well with force,” Ligaweic said.
She did start meeting with Daley, but she didn't stop using drugs. ;
“I was lying to my coach, and she knew something wasn't right,” Ligaweic said. “You could see in my face and my weight, and just everything, that I wasn't OK.”
Most DART officers and coaches say they’ve had to accept this roller coaster of addiction — the relapses, the sad endings.
“That’s the most frustrating part. It's like you don't want to see anybody fail,” said Goulet, with the South Hadley police.
Goulet remembered a time he and his partner drove a man to Pittsfield for detox.
“He’s like, ‘I want to get treatment. This is it. This is my time. I hit rock bottom, ready to go,’” Goulet said. “And then he was up there for a few days. He called here, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I'm doing good.’ And then all of a sudden, he went off the radar.”
Next they heard, he was back on the streets, getting arrested.
‘She saved my life’
Ligawiec was almost one of those sad endings. Last August, about six months after she first got involved with the DART program, Ligawiec was doing heroin alone at her father's house in Ware.
“I started to feel, you know, something going through my body, like an electric shock, almost in my heart,” Ligawiec said. “It would be zinging through my body... And then it would hit my heart, and my heart would beat real fast. And I started to be unable to breathe. I was dripping sweat. And I said to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I'm having an overdose.’”
That's when she remembered the Narcan she'd been given.
“I found the Narcan in my trash. I opened it up, and I Narcaned myself,” she said.
Ligawiec called out to her iPhone and asked Siri to call an ambulance. From the ER, she called her coach, Susan Daley.
“And I was crying, because I really wanted to tell her that she saved my life,” Ligawiec said. Daley started to cry with her.
Ligawiec said she realized that even though most of her friends had given up on her, she could still call her DART coach and officer.
“And for me, it was like a tornado went through, and all that was left in the center was me and, like, a vast land of ruin,” Ligawiec said, “And having Susan and Officer Cacela there — it's life-changing.”
That was the moment Ligawiec decided to accept their help for real.
Daley helped Ligawiec get into a 10-day detox program, supporting her through five difficult days on the waiting list. ;From there, Ligawiec went into a 30-day rehab, and then the recovery house, where she expects to stay until next fall.
‘We figure out what we can do from there’
Almost a year since that first 911 call, Ligawiec and Officer Cacela go to a weekly pottery class together in Ware.
At one evening class, as they banged hard on their clay to get out the air bubbles, they both seem to be working something out of their system.
“It's like when you're a little kid, and you play with Play-Doh, you know what I mean?” Ligaweic said.
“But for grownups,” Cacela agreed.
Cacela takes people here on his own time — an activity to fill their brains’ pleasure center, he said, in place of drugs.
He hadn't seen Ligawiec since the overdose, so they talked a bit about her recovery. But mostly, they sat on neighboring pottery wheels, throwing down lumps of wet clay.
“Watch out for his splash. It's dangerous!” Ligawiec joked.
Not all Cacela’s relationships are this close. He said he's reached out to about 60 overdose survivors. Only half of them got back to him, and fewer still stay in touch.
“Usually, they're happy to see me, and tell me how they're doing,” he said. “Sometimes, they tell me they're not doing so good. So we figure out what we can do from there.”
As Ligawiec shaped her clay bowl on the wheel, she said she feels healthy, but she can’t predict how she’ll be doing next week or next month. She nodded over to her purse.
“I have Narcan right there in my bag all the time,” she said. “I will never hide Narcan again.”
And if she — or anyone else — has to call 911, she won't turn down the help again, either.
This is part one of a series. Here's part two, part three, part four and an extra story.