I. Arrested

Carlos Melendez held up both his hands and stepped out of the car.

He told the officers who pulled him over everything: he was intoxicated, there was an open bottle of beer in the car and his license was already revoked.

This was a learned practice, as Melendez has been arrested in Philadelphia 15 times.

“I didn’t give them a hard time because I didn’t want to do hard time,” he said.

Carlos Melendez poses for a portrait on Kensington Avenue. PHOTO BY JULIE CHRISTIE

Melendez has spent 25 years of his life incarcerated, cycling in and out of the criminal justice system for drug-related crimes. He’s also one year into his recovery from heroin, but is still working to cut down on his alcohol use.

Melendez said the most of the officers in the 24th District, which includes where he lives in Kensington, “treat you like a piece of crap.”

As addiction is more widely recognized as a disease, police departments are trying to implement new approaches to navigate an issue that was once considered criminal.

In the 22nd District — which includes Sharswood, Strawberry Mansion and Temple University — the department adopted Police Assisted Diversion, or PAD. The program has two parts: helping people with substance use disorder enter treatment through referrals and building stronger relationships with the community through on-the-ground outreach.

A Philadelphia police officer holds caution tape at an accident scene on Kensington Avenue. PHOTO BY SYDNEY SCHAEFER

II. The History

In the 1980s, the United States government encouraged police to target the drug trade by creating a federal drug task force and encouraging local police to vilify people who use drugs.

“Different aspects of the drug war did affect community-police relations,” said Steve Belenko, a criminal justice professor at Temple who specializes in substance use treatment and criminal justice.

In the ’80s, police focused on open-air drug markets that were commonly in minority communities, Belenko said. He added that many communities were happy that police tried to shut down these markets.

Police’s increased use of stop-and-frisk — which is a legally protected law enforcement policy that allows officers to stop people without making an arrest — and similar practices damaged community-police relations, he added. Stop-and-frisk historically targeted minorities. For example, the New York Police Department reported that nearly nine out of 10 people stopped under the policy in 2011 were Black or Hispanic.

Nicole O’Donnell, a certified recovery specialist, poses for a portrait. PHOTO BY JULIE CHRISTIE

III. The Point-people

As part of PAD, officers are trained to identify people with substance use disorder and connect them to the appropriate resources, said Nicole O’Donnell, a certified recovery specialist.

O’Donnell works with David Wright, who is also a certified recovery specialist, at PRO-ACT, an advocacy organization that helps people with substance use disorder find treatment.

If police arrest someone and identify them as someone who needs treatment, they offer two options: either go through the criminal justice system, or enter treatment. If someone chooses treatment, police don’t record their arrest and they’re referred to O’Donnell and Wright.

“For these kinds of crimes, we know why it’s happening, it’s a symptom of the disease,” O’Donnell said. “So if we can fix that, they probably won’t be stealing out of stores anymore.”

O’Donnell said officers also send her people through social referrals, which are more common than arrest referrals. Social referrals entail officers seeing someone who isn’t committing a crime, but should access treatment.

So far, officers have referred about 35 people total, O’Donnell said.

After officers refer people to O’Donnell and Wright, the certified recovery specialists work to put them into a treatment program.

O’Donnell said it could take anywhere between a few hours to a few weeks to find someone a bed, depending mostly on whether they have the right identification.

Philadelphia police officers in the 22nd district, Helena McGinn (left) and Larissa Smith, pose for a portrait. PHOTO BY JULIE CHRISTIE

IV. A Community Seeing Change

PAD began with officers Helena McGinn and Larissa Smith making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out along their beat at 23rd Street and Ridge Avenue.

“The sandwiches were a peace offering,” McGinn said. She and Smith have since become the leading officers in the program, which has trained several dozen officers.

For McGinn and Smith, community outreach is the most important part of PAD.

“People only see the uniform, they don’t actually see the person in uniform,” McGinn said. “Now we get tons of ‘Hellos,’ and people enjoy our company.”

“It wasn’t like that before,” Smith said.

Smith and McGinn said they realized just how well the program works when they came across three men, all of whom needed to go to treatment. One was “crying and appreciative right away,” McGinn said, and another immediately agreed to enter a program. But the third was reluctant about treatment.

The two officers said they expected him to just get a shower and then leave. Instead, he went through treatment and is now “doing well,” McGinn said.

“It was eye opening, shocking really,” she added.

“I think it’s going to take a while for [PAD] to play out, for drug users to accept that and to trust police that it’s not really a pretext for arresting them or identifying them as drug users so they can arrest them later on,” Belenko said.

But if more officers adopt the public health approach to addiction, PAD will be easier to implement throughout the city, he added.

PAD is set to expand to the 39th District — which includes Allegheny, Tioga and Germantown — but there’s no exact timeline for it.

Ronald Lassiter, who lives in Northwest Philadelphia, said he’s glad officers are “giving back,” like the time when PAD officers cleaned up two empty lots near 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

“[PAD] will help because when I was [using drugs] they didn’t have this kind of program,” Lassiter said. “When the police come around, it was just straight to jail.”

Esther Holguin, 49, said the community near where she works at Town Supermarket on Cecil B. Moore and Ridge avenues needs PAD.

“I see so many people who come in and out of addiction,” she said. “I’ve witnessed people overdose.”

Holguin said it’s important for people to interact with the same officers because it keeps people alert and aware. When people with substance use disorder see the same faces, they may also be more comfortable asking for help, she added.

On Fridays, O’Donnell, McGinn and Smith walk along 23rd Street and Ridge Avenue just to talk to people and educate about the resources available for treatment.

“All the community people look forward to seeing [O’Donnell],” McGinn said. “She’ll give you her shoe if you need it.”