Managing the heroin, opioid crisis a collaborative effort in Centre County

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller speaks during the Centre County HOPE Initiative town hall meeting Tuesday at Mount Nittany Medical Center.
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller speaks during the Centre County HOPE Initiative town hall meeting Tuesday at Mount Nittany Medical Center. psheehan@centredaily.com

Local, state and federal law enforcement officials gathered Tuesday night at the Mount Nittany Medical Center to discuss the criminal justice system’s response to the heroin and opioid crisis in Centre County.

The fourth, and final, town hall-style discussion, sponsored by the Centre County Heroin Opioid Prevention Education Initiative, offered Centre County community members a glimpse into how law enforcement is combating the rise in heroin and opioid-related deaths.

According to data provided by Centre County police departments, there were 15 fatal heroin and opioid overdoses countywide in both 2014 and 2015. This year there have been 16, and according to Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers, that number is expected to hit 21.

One of the main hurdles law enforcement encounters is jurisdiction, according to Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller. Often the source of the drugs comes from outside of Centre County, which creates a situation where local law enforcement needs the assistance of state law enforcement and, in some cases, the state seeks help form the federal agencies. Parks Miller said working together is key.

“All of these people sitting here, whether you know it or not, they have your back,” Parks Miller said. “We all work together as a team to fight this drug issue.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Sean Noel pointed out that local governments are on the front lines of the fight, but state and federal government can be most effective when they focus on the drug traffickers.

“We focus on the organizations,” Noel said. “We’re looking at the structure and the connections that they have outside of central Pennsylvania.”

Noel added that one of the ways to better understand the organizations and how they function is to focus on drugs being transported on the interstate system, specifically Interstates 99 and 80.

Interdiction, which is the interception of illegal drugs being smuggled into an area, is a key to stopping the flow of the drugs. But according to state police Officer David McGarvey, the traffic stops often reveal overdose situations, which the state police are now prepared to handle.

In early 2015, state police equipped their officers with Naloxone, a drug that is used to treat a narcotic overdose in an emergency situation. The need for the drug highlights the harsh reality and complexity of the situation.

Ferguson Township police Chief Diane Conrad sees the criminal justice system as a way to not only detain offenders, but to also save their lives.

Centre County Judge Pamela Ruest shared in Conrad’s sentiment and explained that Centre County is in the process of developing a drug court. The specialized court would take a public health approach to dealing with addiction by offering offenders decreased or eliminated sentences if they follow the strict guidelines set by the court. Over a period of time, the offender would be expected to work closely with all aspects of the criminal justice system to rehabilitate.