Law enforcement: Adjusting to epidemic

Lt. Wally Stotlemyer of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force speaks to the audience during the Community Forum on Heroin at Stimpson Auditorium at Shenandoah University Tuesday night in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

WINCHESTER — The heroin epidemic has forced law enforcement officials to make adjustments in how they do their jobs, a lieutenant with the Winchester Police Department told a community meeting Tuesday.

Lt. Wally Stotlemyer told the gathering of about 100 at Shenandoah University that police have come to realize that when it comes to heroin, not all dealers are equal.

Stotlemyer said some people sell heroin in an attempt to enrich themselves at the expense of the addicts who buy their product. Police continue to try to arrest those dealers and lock them up as they have done with dealers of other drugs.

But other heroin dealers are trying to earn no more than what is necessary to keep themselves supplied with the drug and avoid the wrenching illness that accompanies withdrawal.

“As far as I’m concerned, in my opinion, they do not fit the classification of the drug dealer we would normally target or approach,” Stotlemyer said, adding that he noticed many in the audience nodding their heads in agreement.

Diana Pryor, a Shenandoah University nursing student, listens to a presenter during the Community Forum on Heroin at Stimpson Auditorium at Shenandoah University Tuesday night in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

“I think the community is starting to realize we have got to treat addicts differently in cases like this than in the larger scale cases we used to work with,” he said.

Law enforcement officials are trying to sort out the different kinds of heroin dealers in ways they never have in other kinds of drug cases, Stotlemyer said.

“If anyone has the perception that law enforcement’s sole objective is to arrest people and put them in jail, you’re sadly mistaken,” Stotlemyer said.

Stotlemyer was one of several speakers who talked about the variety of ways that the criminal justice system, the medical profession and social service organizations have responded to dozens of heroin overdoses, many of them fatal, that have plagued the area since 2013.

Timothy Coyne, who heads the public defender’s office in Winchester, described efforts to launch a drug court — a court that specializes in drug cases and tries to balance punishment with treatment options to help offenders overcome their addiction.

Public defender Tim Coyne is backdropped by a slide of Heroin Overdose Deaths in the region for 2015 as he speaks during the Community Forum on Heroin at Stimpson Auditorium at Shenandoah University Tuesday night in Winchester. Rich Cooley/Daily

Coyne called the planning for a drug court by officials from Valley Health and city and county officials “truly extraordinary.”

“It’s not going to happen tomorrow,” Coyne said of the proposed drug court. “It’s a lengthy process to do it right.”

Coyne, Dr. Nicholas Restrepo of the Winchester Medical Center and Judge Elizabeth Kellas of the Frederick County and Winchester Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court listed several other initiatives identified as “best practices” in efforts to fend off heroin. They said they hope to eventually incorporate each of the best practices into a comprehensive coordinated program that will curb heroin addiction and trafficking.

Other projects in addition to the drug court on the best practices list include a drug detoxification center; an expanded drug take back program; education for medical providers on treating addiction; prevention and education programs, a program for monitoring sales of certain prescription drugs; and a network of peers to help addicts through the recovery process.

“We realize addiction is a disease,” Kellas said. “It’s not a moral judgment we make about people.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com