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Arizona Angel Initiative Expands To Mesa

January 6, 2019

MESA  — Mesa police want to help defendants accused of drug-related crimes break their addiction, treating the source of criminal behavior and breaking the cycle of repeated arrests.

When officer George Chwe arrests someone for driving under the influence of drugs, he also encourages them to enter the Arizona Angel Initiative Program, which connects defendants with behavioral agencies.

Chwe, a traffic officer, said he is inspired by his own experiences in helping his daughter break heroin addiction.

“It was the worst time of my life. To see someone go through withdrawal for 96 hours is incredible,’’ he said.

Chwe tells suspects about his daughter’s successful efforts to get clean in hopes they will enter the Angel Initiative, which is run by the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family.

“I talk about her story as a way of letting them know there is hope. Lots of times, they give up on themselves,’’ Chwe said.

Chwe said he has made hundreds of arrests for driving under the influence of drugs. Impaired driving suspects often tell him how they were prescribed an opioid painkiller after surgery, but got hooked.

Oftentimes, a person addicted to opiates will resort to buying them on the street. Eventually, they turn to heroin because it is cheaper.

The Angel Initiative started out of Phoenix police’s Maryvale district in October 2016 and has expanded to include the Scottsdale and Mesa police. The Pinal County Sheriff’s Department also is planning to participate.

So far, 172 people have enrolled in the program, according to Kristin Sorensen, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family.

A series of behavioral health agencies have agreed to work with defendants, using their insurance to pay for it when possible but also providing services free of charge when necessary.

East Valley behavioral health providers participating in the program include Community Bridges, La Frontera-Empact, Terros Health, Aurora Behavioral Health and the Banner Behavioral Health Hospital.

“This is really a program that will hopefully remove that hurdle,’’ said Assistant Chief Tony Lythgoe. “If people can’t afford it or don’t know where to turn, it would help them out.’’

Lythgoe said addicts also don’t need to get arrested to qualify for the program. They can simply call Mesa police’s non-emergency number or go to any police station during business hours and ask for help. The next step would be determining if they are eligible.

“We are able to intervene with people who have a problem with drug addiction before it gets worse,’’ Lythgoe said.

The Angel Initiative is not a diversion program. The primary incentive is arranging for services, potentially free of charge, that can help someone start a new, drug-free life.

“We do not place special conditions on the Angel Initiative candidate because our focus is to encourage them to get treatment,” Lythgoe said.  “If the person goes to court for criminal charges, then it will be up to the county attorney’s office or the city prosecutor’s office to make recommendations and up to the court to order the defendant to comply with court ordered requirements for the charges.”

A wide swath of crimes can be drug-related.

“A lot of times, those crimes are occurring because people are coming up with a way to feed their addiction,’’ Lythgoe said. “This is a non-traditional way of law enforcement. It’s not exactly the way we’ve done things in the past.’’

But the carnage from the opioid epidemic has forced law enforcement and all layers of government to re-examine how it can do things differently to save lives.

In Mesa alone, police have tracked 576 opioid-related incidents between Nov. 1, 2017 and Nov. 30, 2018, with 62 opioid-related deaths.

Those numbers are overshadowed by the 2,610 suspected opioid-related deaths recorded statewide, from June 15, 2017 to Dec. 20, 2018, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services website. It also recorded 17,644 suspected overdoses.

“Substance abuse is one of the most serious public health crises impacting communities across the nation, and Arizona is no exception,’’ said Maria Cristina Fuentes, director of the state program.

Defendants arrested and accused of violent crimes are not eligible. Drug dealers also aren’t eligible, but those accused of simple drug possession are.

Mesa police are just getting started with the program.

Chwe admits only one defendant in Mesa has enrolled so far, but he hopes more will opt for it once officers start recommending it more and once defendants realize it’s a way to break out of a seemingly hopeless rut.

Chwe said he knows from his daughter’s experiences that it takes a deep commitment to break any drug addiction, but especially heroin addiction.

“That is ultimately the biggest thing. I’ve had one go through the program, but I’ve had others say I am not ready for the program,’’ Chwe said.

His daughter’s journey included fleeing from an in-patient drug addiction program, leaving Chwe and his wife wondering if they would ever see her again. Chwe spotted her on the street in Mesa in a chance encounter, while writing someone a traffic ticket.

Chwe said his daughter responded to his pleas to help her, and he stayed by her side as she went through heroin withdrawal and started a new life.

He said his daughter’s heroin addiction made him view the problem in a different light than just arresting people, sometimes over and over again, thinking that the defendants would never change.

“She’s not a criminal, she’s my daughter,’’ Chwe said.

“Even though I am a police officer, I am just a person, and I know it can happen to anybody. It’s a great example there is hope, and people can change.’’

Click here to learn more about the Arizona Angel Initiative.