Kyle Schmitz, a 20-year-old senior at Thomas College, has always known he wanted to work in law enforcement and help people.

As an intern at the Waterville Police Department this summer, he works on a program aimed at reducing the demand for drugs. The work has solidified Schmitz’s decision to enter law enforcement, he said.

On his first day Schmitz was trained in the Operation HOPE program, which stands for Operation Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort.

The HOPE program is a partnership between the department and the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, to connect those addicted to opioid drugs with residential treatment facilities.

The Waterville department started the program in response to the growing drug epidemic in the state. In 2016, overdose deaths in Maine jumped 40 percent, claiming the lives of 378 people. Most of the overdoses were caused by opioid drugs like heroin and its potent counterpart fentanyl.

Operation HOPE offers a second chance to addicts who are ready to take the steps toward recovery. Anyone can walk into the Waterville station for the program and go through the intake process, which aims to lead them through detox and to the ultimate goal: a long-term treatment facility.

Chief Joseph Massey said he’s happy the department can offer the program. He has a close family member who is addicted to opiates, but one day he hopes to see them walk through the door.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this issue,” Massey said.

July 15 will mark six months since the inception of HOPE. So far, the program has seen 18 people and helped 14, nine of whom have entered long-term treatment.

For the program to work, the most important thing it needs is community support. It has four volunteer “angels” who help the department find placements for those who walk through the door. It’s also received more than $10,000 in donations since January.

“I see a ton of support in this community, and I don’t see this waning in the future,” said Deputy Chief Bill Bonney. “We’re going to do everything we can to solve the problem in our little community, and if everybody in their little communities” did the same, the chief said we may see some progress in the epidemic.

Officer Linda Smedberg, left, of the Waterville Police Department, works with intern Kyle Schmitz at the police department Thursday. Working with the department’s HOPE program that focuses on helping addicts has been an eye-opener for both. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Laurie Brown, one of the volunteers for the program, has worked with two people so far and referred another two, she said.

She was called in on Memorial Day, which she had off, to help get someone into a facility. She ended up working from 2:30 p.m. until 8 p.m., she said.

The man was there with his parents and “had hit rock bottom.”

“He didn’t like the person he was becoming anymore,” Brown said. “Sometimes they have to hit that rock bottom, so you have nowhere to go but up.”

Brown found him a place out of state finally after calling a half-dozen Maine programs that were either too full or too expensive.

“Just the look in his eyes made it all worth it,” she said. “I mean, there were tears. I’m glad I was the one who took the call.”

The parents were also grateful, she said. This experience hit home for her, as Brown has a son who is in recovery for addiction and doing well.

“I can relate to the parents,” she said. “I think it kind of puts them at ease.”

So far, everyone she’s worked with is doing well, which makes the work worth it. She plans to continue volunteering for as long as she can, she said.

While people are afraid of the stereotype, Brown said, “It’s part of reality,” and she hopes more parents speak out and ask for help.

“It’s a disease,” she said, and people from all walks of life fall into it.

When volunteers aren’t available, Schmitz, the intern, has been doing much of the front-end work for the program, talking with those who come in and determining if they’re an appropriate fit. He runs a background check and begins calling treatment centers around the country.

The experience has been “eye-opening,” Schmitz said.

The last person he helped had overdosed on drugs twice over the previous few weeks. He told Schmitz that he knew if he didn’t get help, he would die.

“You see these people come in, and they are really at their absolute bottom,” Schmitz said, “and you are their last hope.”

An instructor in the criminal justice department at Thomas said the college tries to teach the curriculum from a social justice perspective.

“It’s really the way criminal justice has moved in the past 20 years,” Steve Dyer said. “Project HOPE is a perfect example” because it focuses on trying to help everyone in the community.

The college’s criminal justice program has an optional drug addiction and crime class that covers Suboxone and other methods of weening people off drugs, as well as the effects of drugs, Dyer said, but teachers try to include the issue in most of the courses.

“Drug abuse is one of the leading causes of most crime,” he said, so it’s also discussed in introduction courses and criminal law classes.

Similarly, drug issues are brought up in a number of lessons at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, Director John B. Rogers said.

The basic program, which runs 720 hours and has graduated 58 officers the past two years, spends about 55 hours on drug and alcohol issues, not including the 35 hours of criminal law investigation that includes a drug chapter, he said.

The academy also runs mandatory online training that police statewide are required to complete, Rogers said, and in 2017 the classes are focused on drug-related issues.

One is a two-hour class on addiction recognition, which will help officers decipher what kind of drug is influencing a person, as well as teach officers about the resources they have to get people help and into rehabilitation.

Another class is for roadside drug impairment recognition.

“It’s a problem, addiction,” Rogers said, so they are trying to address it from both a community policing and enforcement perspective.

Officer Linda Smedberg, one of three officers assigned to work on HOPE, also said the program has been an “eye-opener” for her.

Smedberg graduated from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in 2000 and has been with the Waterville Police Department for four years, but she started to understand what addicts go through while listening to people open up and tell their stories in the HOPE program.

Several people have said they had nowhere else to go, Smedberg said. They would say to her they knew “if I don’t get help, they’re going to find me dead.”

She’s also has gotten a better look at the physical toll that detoxing takes on the body.

“You don’t understand it until you see it,” she said.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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