News & Politics

Staten Island Law Enforcement Won’t Stop Fighting the War on Drugs

Even after campaign promises by D.A. Michael McMahon to tackle the borough’s opioid crisis, it’s easier for residents to get arrested than to get help

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After using heroin for a year and a half and trying unsuccessfully to quit on her own, Jenna was confident she was on the right path. She had checked herself into a methadone clinic on Staten Island’s Seguine Avenue, deciding it was time to try in earnest to get clean.

“I had a really normal and good life prior to trying heroin,” the 29-year-old Staten Island native, who asked to be identified only by a pseudonym as her case is still pending, tells the Voice. While she’d been able to maintain her job at a construction company as her addiction worsened, she eventually became unable to take care of her son, and sent him to live with her mother. The clinic offered a chance to turn things around.

But on her third morning at the clinic, less than five minutes after she drove out of the brick hospital complex’s parking lot, she was pulled over by an unmarked police minivan. As is often the case for people struggling with addiction, Jenna was still using heroin during the early days of methadone treatment to stave off sickness from withdrawal, and had several glassine bags of the drug on her.

Jenna was cuffed and taken to the precinct where her arresting officer, Mathew Reich, told her about a drug diversion program called HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention & Education) that could wipe the potential misdemeanor possession charge from her record. But, he later informed her, an old felony theft charge on her record that had been dismissed actually made her ineligible for the program.

HOPE was the brainchild of Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon, who launched the program in February 2017 to redirect people with “little to no criminal record” who were arrested on low-level drug charges away from jail and prosecution and into community-based health and treatment services, instead of jail and prosecution. McMahon said at the time that he hoped the program would “shift the Staten Island paradigm — no longer will we be Heroin Island, but rather HOPE Island.”

But while HOPE has since expanded to Brooklyn and is set to expand this year to Manhattan and the Bronx, public defenders say the overall number of people on Staten Island being admitted to treatment diversion programs — for both felony and misdemeanor drug offenses — has actually gone down on McMahon’s watch.

Christopher Pisciotta, attorney-in-charge of Staten Island Legal Aid’s criminal practice, calls HOPE “a great program,” but notes that for every person offered a place in the program since its inception, two more have been denied. Since HOPE’s inception, 468 people have been offered admission, according to Ryan Lavis, a spokesperson for McMahon’s office, and 361 of those people have completed the program and had their cases withdrawn. Lavis says 5 percent of people directed to HOPE by the arresting officers are then turned away.

But these numbers don’t account for first-time low-level drug offenders like Jenna, who are never directed to the program by the police in the first place. And other programs, such as Staten Island Treatment Court (SITC) and Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime (TASC), have seen their numbers decline; in 2014, 434 people were referred to SITC by the D.A.’s office, a number that fell to 201 in 2016, one year into McMahon’s term. (The director of TASC, which is partially funded through the D.A.’s office, declined to comment on admissions to the program.)

“We are in the midst of an opioid abuse health crisis,” says Pisciotta. “Yet we see fewer and fewer offers for people to receive drug treatment through our Staten Island Treatment Court.”  

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In 2016, the number of overdose deaths on Staten Island rose by 66 percent, leaving the borough with the highest overdose rate in New York City. The crisis of opioid use — which includes synthetic painkillers such as oxycodone and fentanyl as well as heroin — cuts across demographics, affecting young and old, black and white, poor and middle-class Staten Islanders.

Fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid painkiller that is significantly stronger than morphine, has exacerbated Staten Island’s overdose death rate, especially as dealers mix it with heroin to increase its potency, making it easier to overdose. In 2017, 40 percent of overdose cases on the island involved fentanyl, according to a spokesperson for McMahon’s office.

A self-described “Democrat-Independent” and a former city councilperson and congressional representative for Staten Island’s north shore, McMahon was elected as the opioid crisis on the island kicked into full gear. During his successful 2015 campaign for D.A., McMahon trumpeted plans to tackle Staten Island’s opioid crisis, both by locking up drug dealers and by expanding treatment options for opioid users.

“We have the worst drug problem in the state of New York,” McMahon told NY 1 News just after his win. “We’ve got to work together with the law enforcement, to get to drug dealers, but also we’ve got to find the treatment and prevention that we need. That was the message of my campaign.”

Since McMahon won office that November, though, tough-on-crime tactics — such as leveling homicide charges against people who sell opioids to users who later overdose — remain center stage at the district attorney’s office.

In addition to launching a public awareness campaign last summer, which includes yard signs that read “Staten Islanders Against Drug Abuse,” a school education program reminiscent of DARE, and a website with resources for those or their loved ones struggling with addiction, McMahon has centered his approach on his Overdose Response Initiative. Launched in February 2016, the initiative entails police calling prosecutors to the scene of any death suspected to be an overdose, which is immediately treated as a crime scene. The goal? “Hunting down drug dealers, aggressively prosecuting them, and sending them to prison,” said McMahon when introducing the program.

Targeting those who supply drugs is an understandable goal for any D.A., but with opioid use, the line between addicted user and seller is often blurry. Those grappling with addiction who may benefit from treatment programs are often the same people being prosecuted for sharing or selling drugs with people who overdose — not just the “kingpins.” Yet someone who unintentionally shares a lethal dose with another user can be charged with homicide, even if they’re battling addiction themselves.

Further, there is little evidence that pursuing harsh sentences — particularly when it comes to drugs — actually deters their use. A recent investigation by the New York Times illustrated the often devastating and counterproductive consequences of approaching overdoses as homicides using drug-induced homicide laws.

“We have seen how families and partners trying to come to grips with the immediate death of a loved one then become the target of law enforcement,” says Pisciotta. “We can save more lives by addressing this crisis for what it is: a public health crisis and not a war on drugs.”

It’s concerns like these that led Mayor Bill de Blasio to endorse a plan to open four pilot safe injection sites around the city — places where opioid users will be able to inject and use drugs under the supervision of trained staff in clean, safe facilities, both to stem the rise in overdose death rates and to prevent the spread of communicable diseases through needle sharing. In late May at an American College of Emergency Physicians Forum in D.C., U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, a Trump nominee, voiced his support for harm reduction methods including safe injection sites.

But though Staten Island is neck and neck with the Bronx as the borough with the highest rate of overdose deaths, only the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan would receive safe injection sites. That’s largely because McMahon is opposed to their introduction, stating that instituting safer-injection sites “undermines prevention and treatment efforts, and only serves to normalize” opioid use.

When asked whether McMahon might change his stance if pilot sites in other boroughs proved to save lives, the spokesperson repeated that “the D.A. has said he opposes supervised injection sites,” and referred to a statement issued following de Blasio’s announcement, in which McMahon says the creation of the sites “poses a serious risk to public safety and creates difficult challenges for law enforcement to overcome.”

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When Detective Mathew Reich pulled over Jenna and her boyfriend, he initially told them it was for stopping too abruptly at a traffic light. (This is not recorded on the formal charging documents Reich filed — he didn’t include any reason for the stop, which is not typical police protocol.) “As soon as he pulled us over, he was cursing, yelling, telling me I was a stupid driver,” says Jenna.

Reich then mentioned that he had seen the couple exiting the methadone clinic and followed them. Jenna says that after her arrest, she and her boyfriend, who is also receiving methadone treatment, were placed in the back of a van with tinted windows. Shortly after that, they were joined by two other handcuffed people who had been at the methadone clinic as well.

When Jenna returned to the clinic for her next dose following the arrest, she says, her counselor wasn’t surprised at her story, telling her that his clients were often arrested outside the clinic.

Staking out methadone clinics for arrests is common nationwide: In a methadone Reddit thread, clinic patients around the country report routinely seeing police sitting in the parking lots of treatment centers. In some instances, undercover officers pose as dope-sick addicts, wait outside clinics, and beg patients to sell portions of their methadone to ease their alleged illness. If patients sell the drug, they are arrested.

“This [tactic] is horrific,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, an addiction medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital who is co-chair of the hospital’s Opioid Task Force. “We should be encouraging people to access treatment, not frightening them away with the threat of arrest.”

Neither McMahon’s spokesperson nor the NYPD responded to requests for comment on this stakeout method, and a FOIL request filed by the Voice for further information about arrests made by Reich outside the clinic was denied. But the pursuit and prosecution of such cases suggests at least a tacit endorsement by the Staten Island D.A.

***

After being told she was ineligible for the HOPE program, Jenna was offered a different deal by the D.A.’s office: Plead guilty to misdemeanor possession, and participate in TASC, a twelve- to eighteen-month program that pre-dates McMahon. If Jenna successfully completed the program, her misdemeanor would be vacated and replaced with a guilty plea to disorderly conduct, which is not technically classified as a crime and would be sealed after a year. But if she slipped up once during the TASC program with a dirty urine sample or other transgression, she could face up to a year in jail.

The district attorney’s office is eager to share success stories from HOPE, which is soon to be replicated in the Bronx and Brooklyn. “We have seen tremendous success with our HOPE program, which has served as a guide for other D.A.’s offices across the city,” says McMahon in a statement to the Voice. “To date, HOPE has connected more than 400 people on Staten Island with treatment services…. These are people who may otherwise be one more use of the toxic drugs out there away from deadly overdose.”

But the program remains out of reach for many prospective participants who, like Jenna, are instead pressured to immediately plead guilty with a distant possibility of having their record wiped clean.

At the same time, Staten Island Treatment Court, the county’s drug diversion court, has seen a marked decrease in admitted participants over the past two years, according to Pisciotta. And a special court for narcotics cases called Part N, which McMahon launched in October 2016 ostensibly in part to allow judges to better assess who needed to be diverted into drug treatment, was shuttered fifteen months after it opened, in which time not a single defendant was diverted. It has since reopened, and Pisciotta says he’s hopeful that it will have better treatment outcomes this time.

Jenna, too, is hopeful about her own future, thanks to the methadone clinic that ultimately led to her arrest. Her cravings for heroin were gone, she said three weeks into her treatment, and she was working to keep her methadone dose low, so it would be easier to ease off it when the time comes.

“The methadone really helps; I don’t feel sick anymore,” she says. The clinic “is a pretty good support system.”

Still, she says she watches her back during her daily visits to the clinic. She’s nervous now, and tries to avoid leaving through the main entrance or exit.

“I’m at fault; I did have drugs on me,” she says. “I get that there has to be accountability. But people are going there for help.”

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