By Rose Hoban
Nashville Police Department chief Tom Bashore spent eight years working the narcotics unit of the Rocky Mount Police Department. It was eight years of catching folks who were using drugs, putting them in jail, processing them for prosecution, sending them to prison, and doing it all over again once they were released.
He got tired of it.
“There was no follow up with individuals,” Bashore said during a recent interview. “I thought, ‘Well, it’s my job to throw you in jail and hopefully when you get there, someone else will take care of you.’ But that never happened.”
When Bashore got the job leading the police department in Nashville, he decided to try something different after a new town manager handed him an article about a program in Gloucester, MA. That program encourages addicts to turn themselves into the police station. Once there, the police helped those people get into treatment, no judgment, no questions asked.
“I looked at the article and said, ‘I think this could work here,’” Bashore said.
So, in February 2016, Bashore launched the HOPE Initiative, which, to date, has helped about 275 people who have walked into his department get into treatment.
“You will not be charged with a crime, if you come down voluntarily,” he said. “You will not be asked where you get your drugs from. We will work with local, state or national resources to find the treatment you need.”
Downtown Nashville has a bunch of dignified old houses, a reflection of the once-thriving tobacco cultivation that surrounded the town, but the town has seen harder times in recent decades. With only about 5,000 people, everyone knows everyone. Once Bashore launched, word slowly started spreading.
He had no idea what he was in for.
The first person who walked in was a veteran named Joey, who started using after a service injury. Instead of being the quick, easy process Bashore anticipated, it took seven-and-a-half hours to get Joey admitted into emergency department for assessment before he could head to detox.
“I got to know Joey well,” Bashore said. He also got to know several of Joey’s family members.
“I recognized this is a family disease, and families need a lot of help,” he said. “They’re unintended victims of this disease.”
To: Detox – 158
Long Term Treatment: 121
Intensive Outpatient Treatment: 94
“I didn’t know what questions to ask and people were telling me, ‘Oh yeah, we have beds but when they come, have them bring a $12,000 check with them, or $30,000 check or a $50,000 check,’” he said. “I was like ‘Holy hell!’”
Luckily, Bashore had put out a call for volunteers. One of those people had a connection to someone who ran a facility and got Joey a scholarship for long-term treatment.
“I thought that everyone who walked through the front door of the Nash County Police Department was going to go, ‘Take me, I’m yours, do what you want with me, for however long it takes,’” Bashore said, laughing and shaking his head. “Then I thought that everyone who walks through the door would have insurance, because, hell, I had insurance.”
Instead, about 98 percent of the folks who’ve walked in have had none.
A little bit of luck
The program started out with no money, yet Bashore has had a couple of things working in his favor. His district attorney, town manager and town council were behind him. Nash General Hospital has a detox facility where people go after the emergency department.
There are a number of natural allies nearby, members of the faith-based community that run low or no-cost treatment facilities and a community of advocates who have emerged around the unfolding opioid crisis.
For doubters, the numbers have won them over.
“In the first 12 months of our program, our statistics for Nashville, we had about a 40 percent reduction in crime associated with substance use disorder folks,” Bashore said. “That’s less shoplifting, less breaking into cars, houses, because you’re taking that individual and getting them help.”
His officers have been convinced too.
“I’m sure that behind the scenes some of [my officers] were like, ‘The chief has lost his damned mind,’” he said. “They now they realize it’s good for the community.”
And Bashore’s thinking has evolved. When he was contacted by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in late 2016 about supporting a syringe and needle exchange program in Nash County, he said “no” immediately.
“I still was like, ‘Have you lost your mind? You’re just encouraging them to use!’” he recalls. “But as time has gone by, through education and exposure, I’ve learned that’s a huge asset for our county… And I never saw that coming.”
Now Bashore works at the needle exchange program in his off hours.
And donations have come in, enough so that his department has been able to cover its costs, and then some.
Just do it
During a presentation last month at the annual recovery conference Bashore brought Ginger Harper to tears.
“You use the power of your badge to get scholarships to get people into treatment,” she told him. Harper, a former addict who is now an addiction counselor, told Bashore he had “taken our biggest fear and used that badge to help.”
Harper said Bashore “blew my mind.” Programs like this one, she argued, are ways to bridge the trust gap for many people who made some bad choices that derailed their lives.
“We’re just human… We want to get back to being the person we are meant to be,” she said. “How can you not become an ally when you meet the person who wants to help you get back to your best self?”
The approach has also won fans in the law enforcement community. George Erwin, from the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said he’s been so impressed, he’s featuring the HOPE Initiative in the association’s next newsletter.
“What we’ve been doing as law enforcement has not worked, it’s not working,” said Erwin, who retired as the Henderson County sheriff in 2006, after decades in law enforcement.
“I remember the days when we were dealing with marijuana, and then we were dealing with crack and then we were dealing with methamphetamine and each time we thought, ‘This is bad,’ but this opioid thing is outta hand,” Erwin said. “We’ve gotta do something different and Tom took the challenge on.”
Erwin said that police could think of themselves more as social service agencies than simply enforcement.
“We’re the first on the scene most time, so we’re acting as the tip of the spear for the county Department of Social Service, the county rape crisis center, for child abuse,” he said.
Bashore has already reached out to other law enforcement agencies, sending a packet of information to agencies in all 100 North Carolina counties. He said that there are some good things happening.
“But my biggest fear is that they will still be planning stuff next summer,” he said, warning against “planning paralysis.”
“When I go to speak to them, I’m like, ‘Just do it.’”
UPDATE: Chief Bashore was given a Dogwood Award by NC Attorney General Josh Stein on Nov. 21 for his work on combating opioids.