At the Sterling Heights Police Department March 30, family recovery coach Kim Cervone, peer recovery coach Rodney Wolford and Officer Scott Demuynck — members of the department’s COMEBACK Quick Response Team — discuss the day’s plan for checking in on individuals recovering from substance use.

At the Sterling Heights Police Department March 30, family recovery coach Kim Cervone, peer recovery coach Rodney Wolford and Officer Scott Demuynck — members of the department’s COMEBACK Quick Response Team — discuss the day’s plan for checking in on individuals recovering from substance use.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

Sterling Heights police provide compassionate care with COMEBACK Quick Response Team

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published April 6, 2021


STERLING HEIGHTS — In February of 2020, shortly before COVID-19 nearly brought the world to its knees, the Sterling Heights Police Department partnered with a local nonprofit to tackle an existing epidemic that was sweeping the country.

Opioid addiction has ballooned in recent years. It can start with something as innocuous as a prescription for painkillers following a dental procedure. And the substance abuse that follows can kill. So the Sterling Heights Police worked with Families Against Narcotics, or FAN, to roll out the COMEBACK Quick Response Team — a three-member unit comprising a police officer, a certified peer recovery coach and a certified family recovery coach.

Within 72 hours of a nonfatal drug overdose, the team returns to the victim’s home and makes contact with the victim and their family. They provide compassionate support and information, connecting the family to community resources and helping the victim access recovery services. It’s a form of follow-up support that keeps patients on the right track.

In addition, the team will make house calls to anyone seeking help for addiction. The team goes out once a week for four hours, usually 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and attempts to contact as many people as they can in that time span.

“Individuals don’t have to overdose for our team to go visit them,” Sterling Heights Police Lt. Mario Bastianelli, the coordinator for the Quick Response Team, said in an email. “The fact that our team is making house calls is huge for its success, because we are literally bringing free resources to your door. It makes it a lot easier to want to get help.”

The pilot program in Sterling Heights was so successful that it has since expanded to 15 other police agencies in the area, with more in the planning stages. The city of Madison Heights recently launched its own version of the program.

“We were lucky enough to be the first department to volunteer for this,” Bastianelli said. “The opioid epidemic has devastated our country. The city of Sterling Heights has been negatively affected by it, as well.”

He said that, from 2017 to 2020, the city was averaging around 130 overdoses a year.

“Let alone how many crimes are committed as a result of someone having an addiction,” Bastianelli added. “Since we began our program, we are seeing anywhere between a 50% and 60% success rate of getting them on some type of treatment for their addiction, once our team makes contact with someone with substance use disorder.”

He explained that treatment options can include placement into a treatment facility; the application of naloxone, which is also known by the brand name Narcan and is a drug that can reverse the effects of overdose; or out-patient treatment, peer recovery services and family recovery services.

“Best part is it’s all free, paid for by grant funding through the state of Michigan,” he said.

Linda Davis, the executive director of FAN, recounted how the group started in the basement of a church in Fraser in 2007 after two young people in the community died from heroin overdoses.

“Back then, though, nobody really knew that we were in the midst of a growing opioid crisis,” Davis said in an email. “Fourteen years later, the crisis is still here, and FAN has expanded throughout Michigan, with more than 20 chapters statewide.

“FAN initially set out to educate high school students about the dangers of prescription narcotics, but our programming has evolved over the years,” she said. “Our mission is to offer community-based, compassionate, best practice and evidence-based services to individuals and families affected by addiction, as well as working to erase the stigma of the disease.”

One program FAN helped implement is Hope Not Handcuffs, which allows people to get help for substance use disorder simply by requesting it at a participating police station. The other program is the Quick Response Team, with its post-overdose wellness check initiative.

“Both of these programs provide peer and family recovery coaches to help the individual and family find recovery together, because addiction is a family disease,” Davis said. She noted that both programs are free and that FAN also offers community training for naloxone, as well as “sober living” scholarships for people being discharged from treatment, and a support group for family and friends called Stronger Together.

“The opioid crisis may not be in the news as much lately, but it is definitely not going away,” Davis said. “In fact, the COVID pandemic — which shifted attention away from the opioid pandemic — has caused drug use and overdose numbers to rise sharply. The isolation of COVID has been so difficult for people with a substance use disorder and for many people in recovery. Not being able to connect with people face to face has really caused people to struggle, and the numbers prove that.”

She points to data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show more than 81,000 drug overdose-related deaths occurred in the U.S. in the 12-month span ending May 2020.

“That’s the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period,” she said. “And nobody is immune from addiction. It affects people from all walks of life, all socioeconomic statuses, all age groups.”

Davis explained that the thought process behind the Quick Response Team is that “compassion is greater than stigma,” so the group acts as a support network during the ongoing process of treatment and rehabilitation.

“We want them to know that we understand what they’re going through and that they matter,” Davis said. “It’s amazing how treating someone with compassion and respect instead of stigma can change how they feel about themselves.”

Both this and Hope Not Handcuffs have changed how law enforcement engages the issue, too, she said.

“All of this helps normalize the disease of addiction and eliminate the stereotypes associated with it,” Davis said. “By removing barriers, we make it easier for more people to seek and, hopefully, find recovery.”