Members of the Sussex County Police Chiefs Association attended Sussex County’s April 2 county council meeting to discuss the growing opioid epidemic in the community, and ask the county for their financial support.
“Our motto is: ‘professionalism, community, integrity and transparency,’” said Milton Police Chief Robert J. Longo, who serves as president of the association. “Sussex County is made up of 20 municipal police agencies with 183 officers serving 75,000 residents.
“Our departments conduct complex investigations from domestic violence, cyber-crimes, fraud, narcotics, traffic investigations… We have an increase in motor vehicle crashes due to the increase in volume, which obviously relates to our increase in population. We’ve become such a great place to live.”
Longo said the opioid crisis is something that all the chiefs in the association are dealing with.
“This is something that effects every community, large and small, within our county, incorporated or not. It also affects our homelessness — people lose everything they have for the drugs — and mental health,” he said. “The Sussex County Police Chiefs have collectively come together, establishing a plan that we would like to present to County Council in the future, as an alternative to incarceration, based on the new sentencing guidelines that have come out.”
Longo said the County’s population growth rate is 2.35 percent, with the total complaints within the County from 2015 to 2018 increasing by 16.8 percent.
As for an increase in complaints that is greater than the increase in population, Georgetown Police Chief R.L. Hughes, who serves as the association’s vice-president, said he could only speculate.
“There is a crisis amongst us — in our local communities, in our county, our state and in our country — and that is the opioid crisis. That does drive a large number of our crimes,” he said. “Quite frankly, a person who is in the throes of addiction, the chemistry of their brain changes — they’re not making good decisions. Oftentimes, because of this change in the brain, they can’t help themselves. That is not an excuse, but therein lies the driver. For us, here in Georgetown, we handle about 400 or so shoplifting complaints from one store per year. The vast majority are driven to fuel an addiction.”
With more support agencies available to help with the crisis, Longo said there is more that can be done than just incarceration.
“We realize we need to improve our efforts. We believe if someone is seeking help it is our moral obligation to help.”
He noted that municipal policing activities, such as criminal summonses, warrants and traffic citations have, for the most part, been maintained at a consistent level in the last four years.
“We’ve been fortunate enough there, that they’ve stayed basically the same, which I believe is a credit to our street officers. It’s their hard work, their dedication that’s keeping the communities safe and keeping our county safe.”
Hughes pointed to the Georgetown Police Department’s Guardian Program, through which they now have a mental health clinician on staff.
“We pride ourselves being the guardians of Georgetown,” he said. “We would say police officers aren’t social workers, but yet we were tasked with certain things within that realm. Doesn’t it make sense to bring in the social workers to do some of the things we have to do?
“We’re fortunate to have a mental health clinician. Oftentimes we find co-occurring disorders with substance abuse and other mental health pieces. We try to identify folks before a crime is committed, because if we find them before the crime is committed, maybe we can stop that crime and get them to the resources they need.”
He noted resources in the county have started to increase, with facilities such as Sun Behavioral Health moving in.
“These are people, and we have to treat our brothers and sisters as people.”
Councilman John Rieley noted that the council has heard from a number of people in the last few weeks regarding the need for affordable housing to help with the area’s homeless population. He asked if there is a relationship between homelessness and the opioid epidemic.
“Not every person who is homeless is suffering from substance abuse. They are not one and the same,” said Hughes. “We do see homelessness here in Georgetown — I won’t speak for the other municipalities. We do try to reach out to those folks and try to find additional resources for them.”
Hughes acknowledged that the rumors of a homeless camp behind the Walmart in Georgetown are true.
“Yes, there are a few tents back there,” he said, noting that it’s an issue both in terms of housing and allowing the developer build on their property.
“It is an issue. We are trying to partner with folks and find a better way for them. A lot of it does come down to affordability.”
Hughes and Longo thanked the council for their ongoing support of the chiefs in the county.
“If not for the help we get from the County, a lot of the initiatives we want to do, we wouldn’t be able to do,” said Hughes.
By Maria Counts