Note to readers: This is the second installment of a four-day series examining the cause of Will County’s record number of heroin-related deaths in 2016 and the county’s efforts to quell the epidemic.
BRAIDWOOD – Although heroin is a problem throughout Will County, the Braidwood area has seen a high level of arrests and overdose deaths. Why?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Braidwood Police Chief Nick Ficarello said. “If we could identify, ‘Why here?’ I’ve been told by the Drug Enforcement Administration that Braidwood, Reed Township and Wilmington Township has the highest heroin deaths per capita south of Chicago.”
A veteran of the Will County Sheriff’s Office and Cooperative Police Assistance Team, Ficarello has been police chief for nearly two years and has made heroin enforcement the Braidwood Police Department’s top priority.
“With [a higher] amount of felony drug arrests has come a significant reduction in burglaries and property crime,” Ficarello said.
Police have been forced to rethink enforcement and prevention efforts. Late in 2016, the department began urging heroin addicts who wanted to quit to use the agency as a resource for treatment. Users who come in during daylight hours are matched with volunteers who have them placed immediately in a treatment facility. Ficarello said that 10 people have sought treatment in the past four months.
“Our volunteers are from the community. We have some retired social workers, and I think having someone who’s not a cop makes it a little more relaxed. They can talk to them, they can ride with them to the treatment center,” Ficarello said.
Braidwood officers also are using Narcan to revive people from heroin overdoses. Braidwood police report that they saved nine lives with Narcan, although some of those were the same victims in more than one instance.
“I have had people ask me, ‘Why are you saving them? Let them die,’ ” Ficarello said. “But that’s somebody’s son or daughter. We have to try.”
Ficarello said he lost a great-niece to heroin.
“It’s really struck home,” he said.
Heroin deaths in Braidwood have varied in ages, from a 53-year-old man to a 15-year-old girl.
Ficarello said police believe that most of the heroin comes to Braidwood from Chicago, as well as that most deals in Braidwood are being made by addicts to fund their own purchases in the city.
“Though there are some ‘professional’ dealers who will deliver from Chicago, but we’ve been advised by the DEA some of the dealers they’ve had contact with prefer to stay out of Braidwood. I’m very proud to hear that,” Ficarello said.
Mayor Jim Vehrs said that when it comes to drug enforcement, the city
is not going to let up.
“We’re out in the country. Maybe they think the police department won’t spend time pursuing this,” Vehrs said, adding that if the budget allowed for more officers to fight drug use, that’s what the city would use them for.
One Braidwood officer currently is assigned to a federal Drug Enforcement Administration task force and another is on the Metropolitan Area Narcotics Squad.
“For a small department to have two officers assigned to task forces is kind of unique, but that’s how big this problem is,” Ficarello said.
The DEA and task forces operate in Braidwood when police request additional manpower.
“We’ve had to change our attitude on heroin [treatment], but investigation is still just having some go-getters who will cultivate informants and information, and a number of concerned citizens who come forward with tips,” Ficarello said.
Vehrs said the police keep tabs on a number of “major players” in Braidwood’s heroin activity and enforcement efforts will continue.
“It’s pretty bad down here. Young children don’t know what they’re getting into,” the mayor said. “I wish we didn’t have [this problem]. I’d like to see it gone. So we’re going to keep going after it.”