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After Running From Police, Brattleboro Resident Now Works With Them To Help Others

A group of four people stand together talking at Turning Point of Windham County in Brattleboro.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
/
VPR
Justin Johnston, second from left, listens to Lt. Adam Petlock of the Brattleboro Police Department during an early morning meeting at Turning Point of Windham County in Brattleboro.

When Justin Johnston was selling drugs around southern Vermont the cops were not his friend.

“The only interaction we got whenever I was on the streets and actively using was when we were getting in trouble,” he said recently.
And there was plenty of trouble back in the day.

Johnston was arrested in 2005 on drug charges.

He spent some time in prison, and while out on furlough he escaped and was on the run for about seven months.

Johnston’s in recovery today. He said he's been sober for almost six years, and now he’s working with the police.

The Brattleboro Police Department introduced Project CARE, or Community Approach to Recovery and Engagement last year. Johnston is volunteering to act as intermediary between the people who are using drugs and the police.

Johnston says it took a little while for everyone to get comfortable with the change.

“In the beginning there were people nervous, and running, and like, ‘I don’t know about this,’” Johnston said. “And these same people a year later are calling and asking about the program and asking for rides to treatment centers to speak with people one-on-one. They just feel more comfortable and that’s because of the relationship and the connection that’s built over this past year, for sure.”

Under the program, some people who are arrested for small amounts of drugs are eligible to have their records expunged if they go through rehabilitation.

"We want to observe the difference between people that require our help in the community and people who are victimizing others." - Lt. Adam Petlock, Brattleboro Police Department

Brattleboro Police Lt. Adam Petlock said Project CARE is designed to help and not punish people who are using heroin.

“We want to observe the difference between people that require our help in the community and people who are victimizing others,” Petlock said. “And we’ve been promoting to the officers here, if you arrest somebody with a small amount of drugs or someone who’s in that victim category we would like to see the officers going more in the direction of treatment and help rather than arrest.”

Over the past few months Petlock and his officers have been visiting the hospital, the Brattleboro Retreat and treatment centers around the state.

"In the beginning there were people nervous, and running, and like, 'I don't know about this...They just feel more comfortable and that's because of the relationship and the connection that's built over this past year, for sure." - Justin Johnston, volunteer with Project CARE

He wants everyone to know each other, and understand the role they each play in recovery so that when someone is in crisis, they’re better able to help.

“We want people to get use to interacting with the police. We want to work together,” he said. “We’re not going to solve any of this; the panhandling problem, the opiate problem, getting overdoses, we’re not going to get any of that done with the police department alone. We need the assistance of people in the community.”

Petlock says it’s hard to show how the program is doing by looking at data, or at any reports on arrests or overdose deaths.

His primary goal, for now, is to build trust.

 

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