Norwich law enforcement alumni on the front lines of the nation’s most deadly drug epidemic
STORY BY SEAN MARKEY
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ARAM BOGHOSIAN
The Norwich Record | Summer 2019
Dana Dexter ’03 became a cop because he wanted to help people. A former champion runner, he also knew from an early age that he didn’t want to spend most of his adult life trapped in a cubicle. So, after Norwich, he followed his older brother onto the police force in Concord, New Hampshire. Sixteen years later, he is now a master police officer and training officer with the department’s patrol division. Four years from retirement eligibility, Dexter still loves putting on the uniform, still loves not knowing what any given day will bring. One minute he could be rescuing a cat, the next chasing a felon down a river.
But lately, “compassion fatigue” is a phrase that crosses his mind. Dexter still cares. When it comes to the state’s opioid crisis, however, it’s hard not to be affected by the sheer number of overdoses and deaths. By returning to the same house, stairwell, or bathroom time and again. By seeing people so trapped in their addiction that they get angry when you pull them back from the brink of death because you’ve ruined their high.
As far as the national opioid crisis goes, New Hampshire is among the hardest-hit states in the country. Its per capita death rate from opioid overdoses trails only West Virginia's, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2013 and 2016 alone, the number of people who died in New Hampshire from opioid overdoses tripled. The National Institute on Drug Abuse at the federal National Institutes of Health attributes the spike to the abundance of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin.
Elsewhere across the United States, the annual death rate from opioids—64,000 in 2017, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available—has come to exceed that caused by traffic accidents or gun homicides. The impact has been so significant that the average life expectancy for Americans has been declining in recent years. According to the CDC, about 400,000 Americans died from opioid-related causes between 1999 and 2017.
For police officers like Dexter and other first responders, public servants on the opioid crisis's front lines, the burden has been heavy. Harrowing brushes with death and hopelessness are now a regular part of the job — as prescription painkillers, heroin, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids tear lives, communities, and families apart.
Last July, shortly after Independence Day, I visited Dexter in Concord. We spent the day patrolling his beat in his police-issue, black-and-white Ford SUV. Loud and gregarious, Dexter is a high-energy, meticulous cop with advanced training in mental health crisis intervention and specialized firearms skills.
As we drove, I asked Dexter how the opioid crisis has affected him and his work as an officer. Did a recent case stand out? The Norwich alumnus thought for a moment and then told me about a 911 call he went on several months earlier.
Dispatch relayed a reported overdose in a boarding house on Fayette Street. Dexter arrived at the three-story building, where he met city firefighters and paramedics. At first, no one knew where to find the victim. But after climbing a filthy, narrow stairwell to the building’s gabled attic, they found a one-room apartment. Inside was a couple in their 20s. The male slumped unconscious on the floor; his female partner sat rocking in one of the room’s mismatched chairs, clutching the phone she used to call 911 and continuing to shout for help. Drugs and intravenous needles littered a small table.
Paramedics began pushing Narcan, the trade name of the opioid overdose-reversing drug naloxone, into the addict. As Dexter recalls, it took an extraordinary number of doses — maybe eight or 10 — to revive the male.
“He was dead. He had no pulse. He was not breathing,” Dexter said, adding that when the addict came to, “he got angry at us for ruining his high.”
In 2015, New Hampshire passed a "good Samaritan" law, which allows anyone witnessing an opioid overdose to call 911 for emergency help without fear of later prosecution. Although the law has likely saved many lives, it also ties law enforcement's hands—officers can’t work cases. The best Dexter and his colleagues could do that day was to bag—and later destroy—the evidence and persuade the victim to go to the emergency room for further treatment. (Although it saves lives, naloxone wears off faster than heroin and fentanyl. When OD victims revive, they can relapse into respiratory failure.)
For Dexter, the 911 call represents the new normal and a source of deep frustration.
“I know that I’m going to go back to Fayette Street at some point and deal with these two, and there’s going to be drugs there,” he says. “We’re not fixing the problem, and nobody has the answer. “If we had the answer, we would be working towards the goal.”
For those who say, "Addicts are responsible for their problem, let them die," Dexter has a ready response.
“Well, that’s not why I became a police officer,” he said. “If somebody has a problem, I want to help them.”
If only he knew how.
Dexter's not alone in his frustration. One could argue that the entire nation shares his predicament, whether we want to or not.
The roots of today’s opioid crisis were planted 25 years ago, when Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, a time-release formula of synthetic heroin in pill form intended to ease chronic pain in the terminally ill. For patients, the drug was life-changing.
“These were miracle pills for terminally ill patients,” says Mark Tully ’92, a 24-year veteran of the DEA, who serves as a Massachusetts-based group supervisor for one of 10 agency national strike forces. Taken whole, the pill would dissolve slowly in a person’s stomach acids, releasing its dose of painkiller over four to eight hours. But drug abusers learned that if you take the pill and crush it, “the time-release is gone,” Tully says. “Now it’s heroin.”
On its own, OxyContin would not have been enough to spark the nation’s current opioid crisis. But as a growing number of state and federal lawsuits brought by state attorneys general and federal prosecutors have contended, pharmaceutical giants like Purdue falsely marketed their opioid drugs as non-addictive. The lawsuits also accused the drug companies of directly and indirectly targeting doctors and medical professionals through sales reps and the funding of nonprofit organizations, such as the American Pain Society, to aggressively prescribe opioids or consider pain “the fifth vital sign.”
One result was that doctors overprescribed OxyContin and other opioids, and gave them to patients in unprecedented numbers. Adults and teenagers received large opioid scrips for nonterminal medical conditions—pulled wisdom teeth, blown knees, chronic back pain caused by injuries in coal mines and construction sites. Patients could experience addiction in less than a week. When their legal prescriptions ran out, some turned to illegal sources. Priced at up to $30 a pill, however, even these illegal supplies soon grew unaffordable for many addicts. Many of them turned to what had once been unthinkable—they bought cheap heroin off the street at $10 a bag and started shooting up.
In 2007, Purdue Pharma, its president, top lawyer, and head medical officer were fined $634.5 million in U.S. District Court for their deceptive marketing practices. (Today, more than 1,600 lawsuits are pending. In March, the company settled with the Oklahoma attorney general’s office for $270 million. The state sued the drugmaker for aggressively marketing OxyContin while downplaying its addictive nature.)
As Tully points out, drugs like cocaine are psychoactive. Our minds become addicted, but not our bodies. Opioids, however, are physically addictive.
“Once your body has it, your body demands it,” Tully says. “And there’s no saying no to it. It’s impossible.”
Tully shared his direct comments last May at a Norwich alumni “Legacy of Learning” event in Andover, Massachusetts. The meeting was in a small, wood-paneled auditorium in the town’s public safety building, which houses the town’s police and fire departments. The topic that night was the opioid crisis.
A half-dozen Norwich alumni, who worked for local and federal law enforcement agencies in four states, were on hand to share their perspective and experience. Hank Shaw ’88, then head of the FBI’s Boston field office (he has since retired from the bureau), led the night’s panel discussion. Joining him and Tully were Dana Dexter, Andover Police Chief Pat Keefe ’90, Federal Marshall Service supervisory deputy Aaron Ward ’07, and Vermont Capitol Police chief and area paramedic Matthew Romei ’98.
As Tully outlined that evening, the heroin epidemic's human toll in New England started to spike five years ago, when fentanyl was introduced. Addiction rates soared, as did overdose deaths. Traffickers replaced heroin with fentanyl, because its high was bigger and its grip on addicts closed faster and more tightly.
“People don’t sell drugs because they’re trying to help their community,” Tully said. “They sell drugs to make money, and fentanyl is a huge moneymaker.”
Paramedics and emergency room staff use the drug legally as a swift, powerful pain reliever. However, the opioid can also be illegally mass-produced from precursor chemicals brought in from China and other countries and then smuggled into the U.S. Tully and the FBI’s Shaw explained how Mexican and Dominican Republican drug-trafficking organizations work side by side, sometimes sharing a central command center, to control the production, movement, and distribution of opioids in the United States. In New England, Dominican organizations “own the market,” Shaw said.
One of the more interesting aspects of the discussion that evening was the surprising reach, scope, and complexity of the problem law enforcement officers described. Shaw shared that not four months earlier, he lost a cousin to opioids. Dexter and Andover Police Chief Pat Keefe, meanwhile, spoke to the close ties between mental illness, opioid addiction, and police interactions.
“Fifty percent of our calls are mental health calls,” Keefe said, later adding that opioid addicts in his community are very often people who’ve also been diagnosed with a mental health illness. Dexter echoed Keefe’s experience.
The DEA and its law enforcement partners work hard to make arrests, dismantle drug-trafficking organizations, and seize their assets, Tully said. But he cautioned that “we’re never going to arrest our way out of the problem.”
Near the end of the evening, Matt Romei, the Vermont police chief and paramedic, shared an observation. “I got my EMT license in 1996, and I never opened a box of injection Narcan until 2010,” the former Army officer and Alabama native said. “And now it seems like we might need a sort of aerial distribution in some ways.”
Romei said he didn’t know how he could ask law enforcement officers to have compassion for an addict who had to be revived with Narcan four times in the same week. But he said he felt compelled to anyway, because compassion was what was necessary for law enforcement officers to help addicts navigate “the ship channel” of treatment into recovery.
In January, I returned to Andover to spend more time with Pat Keefe, the town’s police chief, and Sobhan Namvar, a licensed community social worker he hired. As the three of us sat down in Keefe’s second-floor office to talk about the opioid crisis, Keefe relayed the news that five minutes earlier, his department had fielded another opioid overdose call.
Keefe has served on the Andover police force for 21 years and as its chief of police for the past six. The son of the former adjutant general for the Massachusetts National Guard, Keefe is himself a U.S. Army National Guard colonel, who served on active duty in Iraq in 2004–05. He grew up in western Massachusetts and likes to joke that the only way to live in Andover is to have been born there or marry someone who was, which is what he did. Keefe leads a staff of 86, of which 53 are sworn officers. Andover is home to Phillips Academy prep school and is upscale by most any standard. Walk its downtown of glass-front shops, restaurants, and bars and you’ll soon spot a half-dozen late-model Porsches and Maserati SUVs parked curbside. But the town’s luxe patina hides another side of the community, where some families struggle to get by and live in public housing. Or the teenagers in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods, who take Adderall to boost their GPAs and escape the crushing weight of their parents’ expectations.
In Andover, as elsewhere, opioids are an equal opportunity addiction. Keefe says he’s been called out to multimillion-dollar houses, where opioid OD victims were in their 50s. Andover experienced its collective wakeup call to the gravity of the opioid crisis on New Year’s Day in 2014. That was the day, Keefe said, that a young girl in high school—someone who was well-liked and seemed full of promise—died from a heroin overdose.
New England has always had a heroin problem. Andover is cradled by the Merrimack Valley, long a major trail for heroin distribution. Fentanyl dominates its opioid market today and is smuggled from the southern border or the Dominican Republic by land, air, and sea. For Andover police, aggressive law enforcement interdiction for suppliers, dealers, buyers, and users is still a front-and-center effort. Two full-time detectives handle undercover drug buys and investigations. Another works full time on a regional federal task force led by the DEA and FBI. Rank-and-file officers are also highly trained and proactive when policing drug activity in Andover.
But that is not enough, Keefe says. He shares that his thinking about the opioid epidemic has changed, rather dramatically, in the past five to six years.
“As a police force, we thought we had it taken care of when we started carrying Narcan,” Keefe said. “[But] that was not fixing it.”
Keefe said Andover was fortunate that in 2015, just when the opioid crisis was hitting his community in full force, the U.S. Department of Justice released the final report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The blue-chip Obama presidential panel examined, among other things, future needs and best practices for policing.
Among its recommendations, the panel advocated a philosophical shift in how police forces framed and approached their work. It shifted the mission of policing from one of enforcement to one of guardianship. Police forces were challenged not to simply to prevent crime and catch criminals, but also to take care of residents—whatever their needs. “They knew [the opioid crisis] was coming,” Keefe said earlier.
Keefe’s view of the opioid crisis shifted even more, thanks to the person sitting next to him that day, licensed community social worker Sobhan Namvar. Namvar, who goes by the nickname Soap, is a former two-time All-American wrestler and national champion who has gone to the Olympic trials twice—once for the United States and once for Iran, where he grew up.
Namvar and his wife live on a 13-acre farm, where they raise chickens, goats, and sheep and plan to grow microgreens in their barn. Namvar was raised in the projects of south Tehran, the son of an Iranian father and a Sicilian mother. Like the arrondissements of Paris, the neighborhood divisions of Tehran are numbered. There are 21 in all and their order reflects their affluence. The city’s first district is its most exclusive neighborhood. The last, its poorest. Namvar grew up in the 19th.
The first time someone helped him was when he was a young kid. That person happened to be a wrestling coach. “He was brave enough to come into my neighborhood and take me to wrestling practice and slowly show me what life was all about,” Namvar said.
Soap came to Andover to coach high school wrestling, where so much about building the team, he said, was about what happened off the mat. Growing up, Namvar saw the impact of substance abuse and mental illness firsthand. His father was a war veteran with mental illness and drug addiction who terrorized his wife and children. Namvar knew how a single mentor helped change his own life. So when he learned that social work could be a career, he pursued it with a passion. As a licensed counselor, he worked in middle school, hospital, community, and substance-abuse settings.
About two years ago, Keefe hired Soap to help Andover address the city’s opioid crisis. Today, the police chief says he doesn’t know how a police force survives without one. Namvar responds to every overdose call that comes in. He goes out with officers to talk with the addict or their family at the scene or follows up alone shortly afterward. His goal is to connect them to resources to help them navigate the path forward—from detox facilities to family interventions to clinical support services and beyond. Opioid addiction isn’t his only source of work. The day we spoke, Namvar was also working to help two families, one with small children, deal with imminent evictions that would likely make them homeless.
The social worker says the more progressive thinking around opioid addiction is that it is a family disease. Working in Andover, Namvar found that most opioid addicts had also been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Keefe says Soap opened his eyes to the fact that “God, yeah, we’ve got an opioid epidemic, but we’ve got a mental illness epidemic as well.”
One goal in Andover is to remove the stigma associated with addiction and mental illness so that people who need help, either for themselves or someone in their family, feel comfortable asking for it. To that end, Namvar and Keefe had the idea of opening a drop-in center for people struggling with opioid addiction. They knew, however, that placing such a center at the police department would only discourage people from using it. So instead they opened it downtown in the city’s former town hall—a historic, three-story brick edifice that also houses the city’s post office. The busy setting allows clients to visit the center to seek help in relative anonymity.
Keefe said Soap’s hire was the right solution for Andover. The admiration seems mutual. “I’ve seen more police officers here do more social work-type things, mental health support-type things, than any kind of organization that I’ve worked for,” Namvar said. “These are our communities. These are our families. We need to help each other, and if we can extend a hand to help, then we will.”
Back in Concord last summer, I continued my ride-along with Dexter. Earlier in the day, the master police officer followed a school bus through a neighborhood of low-income apartments as it picked up kids for summer day camp. It’s something he and his fellow officers do during the regular school year to ensure drivers obey speed limits and traffic signs. They might also stop kids riding their bikes to talk about bike safety, handing out department vouchers for free pizza to the kids wearing helmets.
For Dexter, the Mayberry-style policing never lasts long. Around midday, he was called to a big-box discount retail store where a woman had been accused of shoplifting and was highly agitated. Dexter escorted her to the parking lot, where she continued her erratic behavior and screaming. Staying calm, Dexter explained that he was arresting her, did so, and turned her over to fellow officers at the scene. [At the police station, an Easter-egg-size rock of crystal meth was found hidden in her purse.]
Near the end of Dexter’s shift that day, smoke detectors tripped at an area dry-cleaning business. With lights flashing, Dexter rushed to the scene, where he set up traffic cones and begin directing the early rush-hour traffic to clear a lane for city firefighting and paramedic vehicles. It was hot, monotonous work, and heat from the road’s sweltering asphalt soon worked its way through my thin-soled shoes.
There didn’t appear to be a fire. Dexter found time to introduce me to Michael Pepin, a fire department paramedic, who told me that, as far as opioids were concerned, it had been fairly quiet the past few weeks. But Pepin said that it was easy enough to tell when a new shipment of heroin or fentanyl arrived in the city. Then, he said, it was “overdose after overdose after overdose.”
A few years ago, the opioid crisis got unexpectedly personal for Dexter. One of his friends, someone he and other friends met once a week for dinner, revealed that she was a heroin addict. Dexter says he missed all the signs, writing off her mood swings as part of her personality. Alex (not her real name) grew more extreme in her behavior.
After three tries at rehab, Alex is finally in recovery, Dexter told me. She’s spent the past three years sober and has a well-paying job in which she travels around North America. But the threat of relapse is ever-present.
“I worry that she slips up. That something happens and then she has a weak moment,” Dexter says. “I worry about her, because I don’t want to see her, I don’t want to see her family go through some of the stuff that I’ve seen…She’ll never be better, you know? She’s always going to have that addiction.”
“Do I worry about her?” Dexter asks. “Every day.” It’s his personal story about the opioid crisis, he says, one that he’s shared before. For now, it has if not a happy ending, at least a hopeful next chapter — Alex is winning her battle with opioids.
As for Dexter, Tully, Romei, Keefe, and Soap, and others like them — people called to serve and protect their communities and the country from its ills—their victory over the opioid epidemic still seems a long way off, if it ever comes at all.