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City's Heroin Troubles Difficult to Tackle, Being Watched Statewide

There is no magic bullet to shoot at Covington's struggles with heroin addiction and a Wednesday morning meeting featuring Police Chief Spike Jones did little in the way of laying out a detailed plan to reduce the number of overdoses or the crimes related to the drug's use such as metal theft and prostitution.

What was accomplished was the engagement of the city's business community and civic leaders to join the police in the fight against the region's most crippling drug epidemic since crack cocaine hit the streets in the 1980s. Hosted by the Covington Business Council at the Artisan Enterprise Center Downtown, the meeting drew more than thirty business owners and community leaders. That attendance was far greater than the CBC's previous attempts to link the business community and the police department. It used to host a regular session called "Cops & Coffee" but those were shuttered due to poor attendance.

 

"Then, we didn't have many issues, but now we have a few," said Pat Frew, executive director of the Covington Business Council. "Spike (Jones) hadn't heard anything from the business community." But Jones has heard plenty from the residential community as more drug addicts and prostitutes are visible on the city's streets.
 
"I wish there was one way for police to deal with this issue," Jones said. "I think it's an issue that we need to have a number of people at the table to figure out how to deal with this."
 
Jones reiterated that the heroin problem is region-wide and is not limited to Covington's city limits. "I want to make sure I'm clear. Everyone thinks this is an urban problem. It's not an urban problem. This misnomer that it's all here is wrong," said Jones. 
 
Special unit targeting heroin, related crimes
 
Jones has assembled a street corner unit in which officers focus solely on combating drug use, prostitution, and metal theft. The department's hands are tied, however, when it comes to keeping users off the street. While many heroin addicts have turned to prostitution as a means of acquiring the funds to feed their habit, they cannot be locked up for long. A state law allows the police to arrest people for loitering with the intent of prostituting themselves, but not for actual prostitution, for which suspects can only be cited and released. "Now, doesn't that sound backwards?," asked the chief.
 
Another issue facing the department is that while it was suggested by city leaders during a $500,000 cut and reorganization for the police that there would actually be more officers on the street, Jones said that the department's number of patrol officers is merely the same as it was before the budget was targeted. There are officers reassigned to the streets from previous positions as part of the reorganization, but not more on patrol than before.
 
More troublesome for officers is that simply arresting the offenders is not enough to keep them coming back for more drugs. Jones said the police department is just one piece of the heroin-fighting puzzle. "Putting people in handcuffs is not going to cure addictions," he said, noting that users are looking for more than a high. "People aren't taking these drugs anymore to get high. They're taking them to keep from getting sick. We're going to put handcuffs on as many people as we can to get them help, but we realize handcuffs won't stop this problem."
 
Targeting dealers, which the department routinely does, won't stop the addiction problem either, the chief said. "This addiction is so powerful that as soon as we take a dealer off the street there's a market. It's more prolific than a McDonald's franchise. You can go a day or two without a Big Mac, but you can't go without 'getting well'. Until we deal with addiction we're not going to have much impact."
 
Methadone clinic, other treatment centers aim to help
 
The planned methadone clinic to be operated by NKY Med inside the former Save-a-Lot grocery store on Madison Avenue has been a point of controversy since its plans were first announced three years ago, with most criticism focused on various proposed locations and its for-profit status. Owner Ron Washington says that the increase in heroin use and its related criminal activity prove that its services are needed. "This is the reason I fought so hard three years ago to bring this to the community," Washington said. "It's starting to affect everyone on a daily basis." 
 
Washington noted that the clinic, which is expected to open in the spring, not only deals with methadone or Suboxone (two heroin substitutes that are supposed to help addicts kick their habits), but also with counseling and job training so that users can reenter the workforce. While the conversation about the heroin epidemic often drifts toward what would be next for the users after they are helped, Washington points to his clinic. "What's next, is what we do."
 
Bob Schrage, the director of administration at Transitions, Inc, another treatment facility, says that substance abuse treatment is an investment that lowers costs related to crime, business losses, and health care. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to arrest them and give them a criminal record and making them unemployable," Schrage said.
 
One Covington social services agency struggles with heroin users. Rachael Winters, executive director of the Northern Kentucky Emergency Shelter, says that she doesn't like to have heroin addicts stay there because of the trouble that they bring. "They don't look high (when they come in) because they are using heroin to be normal," Winters said, noting that during an addict's crash the sight can be scary for the staff, or also their desperation could lead to thefts or other troubles.
 
Epidemic is also drain on fire department's resources
 
Acting Fire Chief Dan Mathew said it's not unusual for the fire department to respond to one or two heroin overdoses a day. On one recent shift, Mathew, who is also the department's EMS director, responded to three overdoses in a six-hour period. Last year, he said. there were two-hundred heroin overdoses in Covington. 
 
"When I started here seventeen years ago we just never saw it. Today it's the norm," Mathew said.
 
Mathew also noted that often heroin users go to the same places to get high. "There are very specific spots where people go," he said, highlighting interstate exits, the Newport Kroger and the Shell station in Crescent Springs as particular hot spots. "It's a lifestyle," Mathew said. "These people are trying to survive as best they can." The acting chief also noted that the addiction rate for heroin users after just one time using the drug is close to 99%.
 
Meeting featured personal experiences with heroin use
 
Several people in attendance shared their own stories of how hopeless a situation can be for a heroin addict. The City of Covington's newly named business development manager Naashom Marx has a relative who struggled with heroin, was clean for two years, but then had a relapse and is now in jail in Campbell County. "He's a great guy and he's stuck in a loop and wants to get clean but it has to be mandated by a judge."
 
"If they are not forced to go it's very hard for them to stay," said Callie Kelley, director of Youth Build at the Northern Kentucky Community Action Commission. Her brother is a heroin addict and she described seeing him go through withdrawal. "It's the most pitiful, horrible thing you can imagine. It's like going back to being an infant, wetting and soiling yourself and feeling nothing but pain. How can we get people to get well when it hurts so bad?"
 
John Hegge, a security supervisor at Gateway Community & Technical College, said that he and his wife spent $386,000 through 2008 trying to get his stepson off heroin, and that was only through 2008. He stopped keeping track after that. After several stints at rehab, the only one that worked for Hegge's stepson was court-ordered. "We've spent our whole lives protecting our kids but the one big monster is the medicine cabinet."
 
Darren Spahr, chairman of the Urban Parternship in Covington, moved out of Newport after a heroin addict broke into his home and made off with his car which he tracked via satellite from Newport to Cincinnati and then to Covington where the thief used his drugs in a Taco Bell parking lot. The car had been totaled. "That is the scenario I had that drove me out of living in the urban area." The day after Spahr moved his family, the house next to his former residence caught fire and burned down. A drug dealer had been renting a unit inside. Sparh thinks that the rental inspection program being considered by the Covington City Commission could be a tool in the fight against the drug.
 
Business owners are also witnessing the effects of heroin use. Katie Meyer, one of the owners of Pike Street Lounge (and also the manager of Renaissance Covington) has seen users come into her bathroom and leave with blood dripping from their arms. Advantage Bank on Pike Street is also battling a constant stream of loiterers and perceived prostitutes looking for their fix. Chris Fischer of Systems Insight on Madison Avenue said he learned how to deal with a troubled crowd on the street after years of being near the now shuttered Bottoms Up bar: Call 911. Fischer urged all business owners to  instruct their employees to call 911 when they see anything untoward happening and said that the police have always responded quickly when called.
 
Mayors, business leaders make call to actions
 
Joe Nienaber is fighting the heroin battle as a Covington business owner and as the Mayor of Fort Wright. "This is not the foot cities want to put forward," Nienaber said. "It is not a Covington problem. We (Ft. Wright) have an interstate exit, too. We've had our share of overdoses. You're not alone in this."
 
Nienaber moved his business, Granite World, to Covington from Boone County earlier this year. Prior to the move, he dealt with a 21-year old man who was a great employee but could not get over his crippling addiction to heroin. After spending six months begging the man to get proper help, Nienaber had to call the man's family to come get him and take him back to Indianapolis. "This is an unbelievably complex issue. I'm concerned that I don't know what we could have done to keep this guy," Nienaber said.
 
"You'll never hear this discussed at the Kenton County Mayors Group," said Nienaber. "There will be no mention of it. This is the largest issue we have in Kenton County. This is going to be a defining issue of how we move forward."
 
"I think it's something we should take to the mayors group," said Covington Mayor Chuck Scheper. "We need to get everyone at the table." Scheper hopes to see a group formed made up of community stakeholders, business leaders, citizens, law enforcement, and representatives from the court system.
 
Nienaber also requested better resources for employers to work with recovering addicts in the workplace. Latonia-based KW Mechanical owner Marvin Wischer agreed. "We're going to have to open up and give these guys and girls a second chance," said Wischer who had recently returned from Fort Meyers, Florida where a similar meeting about heroin took place. "The chief there gave the exact same speech."
 
The whole state is monitoring Northern Kentucky's heroin battle
 
Covington and Northern Kentucky as a whole are the first parts of the Commonwealth to be dealing with heroin use on such a large scale. While other areas of the state have drug problems of their own, primarily pills, heroin would be new to them when it inevitably arrives.
 
"The rest of the Commonwealth is looking up here at us," Chief Jones said. "If we do it right, we do a service for the rest of the state. I think this is the group that can decide this and shape this thing."
 
Written by Michael Monks, Editor & Publisher
 
PHOTO: Acting Fire Chief Dan Mathew speaks as Police Chief Spike Jones listens/RCN