The community under the leadership of the Elkin Missional Network of United Methodist Churches provided an open invitation to area law enforcement officials to find out some of the challenges facing officers and how the community can help fight those.
“Law Enforcement, the Church and Community: A dialogue to promote understanding and unity” was held Sunday at Grassy Creek United Methodist Church, and during the discussions, which were moderated by the Rev. Judy Davis of Jonesville First United Methodist Church, law enforcement leaders explained the underlying cause of most crimes is drugs.
“We think communication is essential,” Davis said to the five leaders in attendance — Elkin Police Capt. Mendy Peles, Elkin Police Chief Monroe Wagoner, Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson, Wilkes County Sheriff Chris Shew and Yadkin County Deputy Sharon Diaz. “We live in a time when tensions sometimes run high, language gets hateful and we want to rise above that. We are not immune to the issues of society.
“We know you all are on the front lines. Thank you for your service and commitment to our community.”
Each official shared their background in law enforcement, and then Davis proceeded with a number of questions during the two-hour forum.
“The calls that most all of us get the most volume are not the calls that create the biggest problem,” said Atkinson as he answered the question of “What do you see as the top incidents you see calls for? What are the principle incidents and problems?”
Atkinson explained he did a study several years ago to find out how many of the people incarcerated in jails were there due to drugs. “Not drug charges, but if you can track back the root cause of their charges it was because of drug use and actions from when they get high or theft to get money for drugs,” said Atkinson. “In 1987, about 87 percent of everybody incarcerated was the root of drug use.
“If you include alcohol, it is probably 96 percent,” he added.
He said removing drugs from the picture would drop the work of law enforcement “tremendously.”
Shew piggybacked on Atkinson’s statement, adding, “Our biggest challenge is dealing mostly with prescription drug abuse. That’s what everybody is after.
“We are in a culture where people just like to get high, and it will take generations to get rid of that,” he said. “The treatment is psychological and physiological, and it is very difficult to get them off that.”
Peles said the prescription drug abuse is not just people starting out looking for that, but “people are kind-hearted.” She explained a neighbor might mention they have pain, and out of a person’s kind-heartedness, they offer them some of their pain killers. “What may affect me in one way may affect you differently,” she said.
Wagoner reported that in Surry County alone in 2015, 28 people have died due to overdoses, and there are two more in critical condition. “That’s an epidemic,” he said.
“What people fail to understand about prescription drugs, someone has a prescription and your body quickly builds up a tolerance to it, that’s why when they take it for a while they feel its not working anymore. Your body gets used to it and you have to increase the amount for it to be effective,” Atkinson said. “Say you take five vicodin for four, five, six, 10 days, and then all of a sudden you take a break, it’s tolerance is lost quickly too. When you start back 10 days later, the body has lost that tolerance but you still think you need the same amount you were taking when you quit. It will stop your heart.”
When asked about the socioeconomic or age groups who are addicted to the drugs, the law enforcement officials agreed while many are the college-age, users are across the board when it comes to those factors.
Atkinson said he knows of a lady who began taking methamphetamine because the person selling it to her when the drug first made an appearance locally was marketing it as a way of losing weight.
“I’ve been around the drug world 25 to 27 years,” he said. “In middle schools, people go steal drugs from their grandparents and then go to school and swap it or sell it. Back in the ’70s, there was a salad bowl of drugs at parties. It’s not new. In the 1990s, methamphetamine users didn’t fit any stereotype. There is no socioeconomic group.”
Shew said one of the things he shows people is pictures of the progression of people using meth — “they lose their teeth, it ages them, they don’t care for nothing. They take something for pain and it takes away all their problems.”
Another problem is the lack of laws to help people who are addicted, whether they want to get help or not. Peles said most insurances don’t cover rehabilitation, but those who need the help don’t have insurance and can’t afford to pay for the help.
“People get discouraged in getting help and just fall back into it. It’s cheaper to have the addition than get help,” she said.
“Five or six years ago, the legislature decided to cut mental health services almost altogether,” Atkinson added, explaining law makers thought the private industry would swoop in and take up the slack. “Most people with addition problems don’t have insurance because they don’t have jobs, and private industry didn’t come in because it isn’t a lucrative industry.”
He said there is just a six percent chance for someone to have a normal life after they’ve been addicted to meth. “The treatment takes months into years.
“There is no mechanism in North Carolina to get someone help if they don’t want it,” Atkinson said. “They have to be a danger to themselves or someone else when they talk to the doctor right then. If they don’t meet that very narrow window then we have to take them back home.”
Shew said, “Even if they do qualify, finding a bed and place for them is another issue. When they get through the crisis, they rarely make it to rehab. And it takes up a lot of our resources.”
After a question from Davis, the officers also discussed how mental health and gun violence went hand in hand. “I’ve said it 1,000 times … the issue in Surry County is not guns, it is mental health,” Atkinson said.
Other topics discussed during the forum included domestic violence, racism, diversity, human trafficking and how local law enforcement is working with the schools.
“I’m hearing overlapping themes — mental health and drug abuse,” said Davis. “It is a very eye-opening conversation. I wish we could resolve all the community [issues] in one two-hour conversation.”
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.