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Reality Check: Waynesville police seek to get addicts treatment, not jail time

Waynesville police are finalizing plans to participate in a program to get opioid addicts into treatment instead of jail.  Waynesville's Police Chief says the criminal justice system isn't set up to rehabilitate non-violent, low level offenders committing crimes because of an addiction. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Waynesville police are finalizing plans to participate in a program to get opioid addicts into treatment instead of jail. Waynesville's Police Chief says the criminal justice system isn't set up to rehabilitate non-violent, low level offenders committing crimes because of an addiction.

Richie Tannerhill, 43, is now in long-term recovery, which once seemed unlikely.

"I was stabbed in the heart, man. I got a scar from here to here over a drug deal gone bad. I'm talking about high speed chases, shoot outs. I used to spend a lot of time running from the police." Tannerhill said. "Today, I spend a lot of time running with them."

"He makes a huge impact on the community here," Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed explained.

Hollingsed agreed to implement a program called LEAD, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. LEAD aims to help people accused of low level crimes (like shoplifting) that were committed to support an addiction. Instead of jail time, police will offer treatment and part of that will include peer support specialists like Tannerhill.

"I say, 'Hey man, I'm not here to judge, fix you, tell you what you need to do, or how to get anywhere. I'm just here to listen.' I remember what it was like for me," Tannerhill explained.

"If you would've told me that I'd be interested in a diversion program 10 years ago, I'd have said you're crazy. I think law enforcement is saying that we're not going to be able to arrest our way out of every problem," Chief Hollingsed said.

"It's a home run. It could've made a huge difference in my life. That's coming from someone that's been in long-term recovery for more than 12 years. That was my story," Tannerhill said.

His past includes years in and out of jail and prison. In LEAD, people's sentencing will be suspended, contingent on them going through treatment.

"What we would actually do is fill out the paper work, just as if an arrest was being made, but we would not put them into the system. However, that's something that we could go back to if the person later left the program," Hollingsed said.

Vaya Health received $250,000 to fund the program for this year. Half of that funding will continue in the future, but after this year, Vaya will need to find another source to fund medication assisted treatments, like buprenorphine.

Tannerhill wanted to speak with News 13 at Lake Junaluska because in a week-and-a-half, hundreds will go there for a recovery rally. At the rally, people will see police there as an ally for recovery.

"We want people to be held accountable, but again, a lot of times treatment is a better option than another day in court," Hollingsed said.

"LEAD does not take out the accountability piece. What it does is offer some support," Tannerhill said.

LEAD is being implemented in Wilmington and Fayetteville. Vaya said Waynesville will be the most rural place in America it is being tried.



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