Chief Koval's Blog

One Family's Personal Journey Dealing with Heroin Addiction

January 28, 2016 8:56 AM

Since becoming Chief in April of 2014, I am literally tethered to my cell phone, 24-7.  While I have a great team that can negotiate and resolve virtually everything and anything that comes our way, my management style (Management by Walking Around/MBWA) is such that I want to stay plugged in to whatever is trending in terms of crimes caused and victims affected, which officers have been hurt or injured in the course of their duties, and which officers have been subjected to particularly traumatizing events in our City.  In this way, my hope is to be in a better position to respond to the needs of our community, the questions of the media and elected government officials, and our MPD Family.  Given that backdrop, I am always consulting my smart phone to see those incidents that our officers are confronting in 8-hour summaries.  And while "shots fired" is a compelling call that gets mine and everybody else's attention these days, far more frequent and sad are the number of times that our people are dealing with those who are suffering from the throes of a mental illness crisis or heroin overdoses.  These latter two issues are beyond the pale of what we mere mortal police guardians can cope with as street cops; these issues have transcended our capacities and are now "public health" epidemics. 

With respect to what MPD is doing on the mental illness front, in the weeks to come I hope to provide a "status" update with respect to the law suit that we filed against the State, hoping to re-open the Mendota Mental Health Institute to accept our adult male emergency detention cases. (We currently have to use two officers to drive to the Winnebago facility in Oshkosh.  It is a minimum of a 5-hour proposition and it makes no sense to me on several levels; it places an already frightened and vulnerable individual into the back seat of a squad car for a very long ride, whisking them away from whatever tacit infrastructure of support that there may be for them in Madison, it takes resources (cops) away from the beats that they should be protecting and serving right here in Madison for extended periods of time---creating compromised public safety, and it is generating more overtime expenditures as these calls always go long).  I will also be providing readers with a one-year assessment of our Mental Health Officer initiatives as well as noting the strengthened bond of collaboration that is reaching new heights with our partners at Journey (A provider group that works for Dane County Mental Health). 

The major impetus for this particular blog is to share a real story of one Madison's family's ongoing struggle in coping with their daughter's heroin addiction.  I have been in contact with "Dad" (I will not be using any of this family's real names in respecting their privacy) and he has given me permission to share the letters that he wrote to me).  Why share and why now?  There are a couple of reasons . . .First, the stats of those who have been "rescued" by MFD and MPD are compelling since being provided with the miraculous life-saving efforts of our collective personnel who deliver timely assistance in the administration of naloxone (aka, Evzio and/or Narcan).  The rapid response of Police and Fire are literally reclaiming lives, many of whom are pulseless and/or not breathing at our point(s) of contact.  With this "best practice" now firmly established, we will be continuing to urge those who provide funding to Fire, Police and Public Health to continue this worthy initiative (MPD received our first 600 dosages through a grant writing process).  But cold, hard "stats" do not provide "Joe" or "Jill" Six Pack with the human elements of how this insidious addiction has wreaked havoc on the lives of our families, friends, and community.

The second reason for sharing this story is that I have been amazed by some who have contacted me with a jaded, almost calloused perspective, that seems to be indifferent to the plight(s) of these real people in our midst who are hurting. It is a sentiment that is bordering on a "you reap what you sow" mindset.  The question or comment comes in thinly veiled as "Why are the police getting involved in this stuff?"  Or, "Aren't a lot of resources being dedicated to "frequent flyers" who engage in this reckless behavior more than once?"  As guardians, we must stand for the proposition that all lives are sacred and we have an obligation to do everything in our power(s) to preserve life while acting in our official capacity as stewards of our community.  As a pragmatic matter, if we can be the intervention that lifts someone from the chains of addiction, it can also result in public safety interests being advanced as well (fewer people committing crimes to fuel their addiction, fewer people driving while impaired, etc.).  Addiction(s) are a complex phenomenon that are difficult for many people who just can't get their hands around it . . . until it manifests itself with someone they love or care about.  I think that this letter may serve as an "epiphany;" but for the grace of God, this retelling of one's family personal journey is a reminder that at any given time, we could find ourselves grappling with addiction.  This letter so moved me that I have shared it with my entire Department and, at times, at community forums.  Perhaps because I have two adult sons of my own, I have yet to read this letter aloud without breaking down in tears. . .

"Chief Koval:

Three weeks ago, my wife and I should have been calling funeral homes, our pastor and our family with tragic news.  We should have been planning a Mass of Christian Burial at Queen of Peace, followed by a procession to an unwanted gravesite.  And we and our other three children should have and would have been robbed of joy, stripped of the will to live, and forced to confront a Thanksgiving for which thanks would have been hard to muster, much less mutter.  All this should have come to pass, but for the heroic, compassionate and life-saving efforts of one of your officers.  You see, that morning, God sent Sgt. X to save the fast-fading life of our oldest child, as she lay dying of a heroin overdose.

Today, and every day, we give thanks to God for sending Sgt. X, who for us was an Angel in Blue.  Mere words cannot begin to reveal our deep gratitude.  Sgt. X will be forever in our parental prayers, until our own dying days.

Our oldest has long struggled with addictions, and will continue to do so.  But she is alive today for that struggle, because of the quick and compassionate work of Sgt. X.  He shows a deep, abiding compassion for people.  Our daughter may not now, or ever, truly appreciate the chance she was given that morning.  But we do.  We do, deeply.  No parent should ever attend the funeral of his own child, yet the current heroin plague is a pox on our society, one that produces a daily item about yet another heroin-related tragedy.  That is coupled with a long line of hurting, mourning parents.  Sgt. X has spared us that carrion comfort, and allowed us a chance to hope & pray that this time may be the time, the chance, with which our oldest will turn a corner and succeed in her struggle, and someday begin to know a healthy, happy life.

We know that many of your fine officers toil in these same drug-addled trenches, day after day, night after night.  But this one, Sgt. X is the one who stood there in the line of fire for us.  We believe Sgt. X deserves to be honored." 

Recently, I was thrilled to get a follow-up letter from "Dad," who was kind enough to report on the progress of his adult daughter.  In a nutshell, "Dad" wrote that their daughter is still alive, improving daily, and has been opiate-free for a number of months now!  "Dad" is a practicing attorney who knows full well the precarious and often fragile line that separates a purpose-driven life and the perils of falling back into the grips of addiction; "Dad" related two other instances of clients--with stories similar to his own daughter---who were clean, for a time, only to eventually backslide and die from overdoses. 

"Dad" noted that after his daughter's revival, she struggled with her addictions on and off to the point that she could not hold down a job  and had nowhere to go and nowhere to live.  But for the intervention of family members who laid out unequivocal parameters as a condition precedent to flying out of state and living with them, "Dad" can only imagine how desperate things may have devolved as he and his wife had done the hardest thing they had ever had to do as parents . . .they turned their daughter away. (Chief Koval: It should be noted that each and every case of addiction is unique and there is not a one-size-fits-all cure-all approach; in this case, fortunately, it seemed to be a seminal moment in this young woman's recovery.  People in AA have coined the phrase "zip code therapy," but caution it only works for so long).

I'm the type of person that likes stories that have a happy ending.  Where good triumphs over evil and everyone lives happily ever after.  Regrettably, in this case, the "ending" is "one day at a time," filled with hopes and a lot of prayers.  As I have met with "Dad" personally, I know he and his family are people of great faith and would welcome our collective prayers in support of their daughter.  "Dad," you certainly have mine!

(The link that is provided here is to an excellent web site that I strongly recommend for parents/family/friends of a loved one who is struggling from addiction.  Parent Addiction Network:  http://www.safercommunity.net/parent_addiction_network.php)

Posted by: Chief Koval

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