A year in, Mundelein police chief says opioid program showing signs of success

Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther is pictured during an Aug. 28, 2016, overdose awareness event in Mundelein. One year later, the Lake County Opioid Initiative's A Way Out program is garnering national attention.
Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther is pictured during an Aug. 28, 2016, overdose awareness event in Mundelein. One year later, the Lake County Opioid Initiative's A Way Out program is garnering national attention. (Rick Kambic / Pioneer Press)

A Way Out, the Lake County program that attempts to prevent crime by offering drug treatment options, has garnered national attention in recent months.

The program allows individuals with an opioid-based addiction to walk into a police station at any time of day and get immediate access to treatment without fear of being arrested.


Mundelein Police Chief Eric Guenther said he was among the speakers at U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' June 20 invite-only National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety in Bethesda, Md., where Vice President Mike Pence also gave a speech.

"It was an eye-opening experience for me," Guenther said. "I was the small guy in a big room."


About 300 people attended the conference. Guenther said he was one of the presenters at a session, although neither Sessions nor Pence were part of his 60-person group. He said the discussion involved police and prosecutors from major cities throughout the country.

"A lot of them were intrigued as to how we've made it successful," Guenther said. "What I found puzzling was a lot of them could come up with reasons for why it wouldn't work by them, but they stopped there and didn't approach those obstacles and explore ways to actually make it work."

Guenther also attended another national summit this past April and is scheduled to speak at the Oct. 21 annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Philadelphia.

Partnership is the key ingredient that's missing in many other cities and states, Guenther said.

"It seems to hinge greatly on the collaboration and the ability for us in Lake County to sit down with a lot of key players and get people to do this for the right reasons, to put egos and financial concerns aside in order to get the mission taken care of," Guenther said.

A Way Out is a product of the Lake County Opioid Initiative, which was created by Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim and includes community groups, police agencies and treatment providers.

June 1 marked the program's one-year anniversary. During the first year, 144 people entered police stations seeking help, according to Guenther. He said only 14 of them changed their minds.

Of the 130 people who were taken to a medical facility, Guenther said about 75 percent completed treatment.

"We started out not really knowing if there would be a level of trust in law enforcement from the user population," Guenther said. "The raw numbers are an absolute indicator that we're building trust with a population that normally avoids us."

Nerheim said police departments are an important part of the process. He said eliminating that fear of arrest allows the person to focus on recovery.

"We have great programs like drug court and some of our court diversion programs, but that's after someone has committed a crime and been arrested, and we're telling them to get treatment or go to jail," Nerheim said. "A Way Out is designed for people who on their own decided they're ready for change and we're getting them help before they commit a crime and enter the system."

Those decisions to change are usually during a state of mind that only last 30 minutes before cravings return, Nerheim said.


Data is not yet available as to how many of those 130 individuals are working on staying clean post-detox or have been arrested for a crime event after treatment.

Nerheim said Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in North Chicago commissioned a study on participants of the A Way Out program and the report is still pending.

"They only started about six months ago," Nerheim said. "It takes a while to get approval for that study and we didn't want to wait to roll out the program."

Guenther said the program recently applied for a $400,000 grant under the federal Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act.

"We're very hopeful that we'll get at least a portion of that grant," Guenther said, noting that a decision is expected by early fall. "That will be a significant key to the program's long-term success."

Nerheim said if received, the money could go toward hiring a case manager, reimbursing police departments for transportation costs and creating a scholarship program to help individuals pay for care or equipment needed for getting a job post-treatment.

"We've never to this point turned anyone away because of ability to pay," Nerheim said. "And that's the beauty of the Opioid Initiative, we have every treatment provider in Lake County as a member of that group. With all those people at the table, we can find something for anybody."

Of the 144 people who entered police stations seeking help, more than 60 went to the Mundelein station and more than 30 to Gurnee, according to Guenther.

"We end up getting referrals, particularly from nonprofits that work with people who are struggling," Guenther said. "So they have trusting relationships and Mundelein is a little more well-known because we initiated the program and I do a lot of traveling for talks like this."

Guenther said fewer than 10 of the people who checked into Mundelein's police station are residents of Mundelein. Regardless of where a person lives, Guenther said drug abuse crosses borders every day and impacts everyone in some way.

Mundelein's financial contribution to the A Way Out program is Guenther's time, the hourly wages of officers who help people complete paperwork and the gas used to transport the individuals to treatment, according to Guenther.

Twitter @Rick_Kambic

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