Cops and robbers … on the same team?
Solving the drug crisis may take unlikely allies working together
By Scott Wisenbaker
When we were kids, we all played some form of cops and robbers. Some of us wanted to be the “good guys,” and some always wanted to play the “bad guys.” Long before there were gaming consoles and computers in every home, we used our imaginations to entertain ourselves and pass the long summer days.
Many of us claimed that when we grew up, we wanted to be police officers, firefighters, or astronauts. None of us said we wanted to commit crimes, see relationships fail and lose everything we owned to feed our addictions.
Some people made wise decisions; others did not. This story follows the paths of two men, a friend and me, on opposite sides of the law, who have now joined together to address the deadliness of addiction.
Two paths diverge
We’ll start with my good friend. This is a man who excelled at sports, joined the military and eventually started a long career in law enforcement. After watching those he knew suffer from debilitating addictions, he decided he could save the community through aggressive drug enforcement. He was determined to incarcerate all drug dealers and completely cut off the supply of illegal drugs. Within six months he realized the job was far bigger and more complex than he ever imagined.
I started down an alternative path a mere 20 miles away. I found I excelled at music and playing various instruments; it was like second nature. Many competitions and awards later, I was convinced performing was the reason for my very existence. Following in the footsteps of my heroes, I immersed myself in the romanticized lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Determined to succeed where so many failed, I took huge risks and set out to build the reputation I thought would immortalize me and place me in the company of celebrated musicians.
Meanwhile, my friend in law enforcement was ramping up his career. He participated as a special federal officer with the FBI and became a task force officer (bulk currency initiative) with the Drug Enforcement Administration and a special deputy U.S. marshal with the United States Marshals Service. He was a founding member of the North Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Group and became an expert witness in narcotics smuggling, storage and distribution techniques.
As a result, he was awarded Police Officer of the Year in 2001, the national VFW Narcotics Officer of the Year in 2003, the FBI Golden Eagle Award in 2003 and the Cooperative Effort Award in 2003 from the Office of the President of the United States. He now answers to “captain” and oversees the Special Operations Division of the local sheriff’s office, which encompasses drug enforcement, criminal interdiction, K-9, warrants and civil units. He is the commander of special weapons and tactics, as well as the crisis and hostage-negotiation team. Lastly, he is the naloxone program coordinator and a member of the local felony drug court team.
During that same period of time, I could be found traveling the country, playing anywhere that would pay me and put me on stage. Varying degrees of success brought varying degrees of attention and special treatment. As a musician, I believed my talent made me special – that the rules of society did not apply to me. Women, drugs and opportunities to behave poorly constantly presented themselves at little to no cost and with little to no thought. Rock stars live different lives than most – just look at Paul McCartney or Willie Nelson. Both are idols. Both have been arrested for drug-related charges. It just comes with the territory.
The public embraces entertainers regardless of their behaviors; they tend to excuse it. These are the very thoughts that fueled me to believe the rules did not apply to those of us who slung a low guitar or firmly grasped a microphone. The heavier the music, the more forgivable the actions. Hotel rooms compromised, erratic driving patterns, endless amounts of drugs, sordid after-hours parties lasting through the night and even the occasional arrest became normal.
My dad once told me, “Son, if you keep getting arrested, you will never find a good job.” To which I replied, “Dad, getting arrested for drugs and alcohol builds my résumé. You see, a rock star who has never been arrested is a poser. No one can ever call me a poser.” Needless to say, he was not impressed with my response.
I rarely considered the consequences of my actions or the many musicians who lost their lives chasing the same lifestyle. It wasn’t until the people in my own band started dying and my brief stays in jail became more frequent and longer that I was willing to even consider this might be a problem. Eventually, my frequent trips to jail led to missed opportunities for the bands I played with, which of course led to my ultimately being replaced. I was once told by a management company that there are very successful musicians who are troublesome and made them millions. I, on the other hand, was a problem without the revenue needed to excuse it. The harder I tried to force my will on the world and those around me, the deeper into my addiction I found myself.
A cop and user collaborate
One day in Dallas County jail, it occurred to me that I would never get where I wanted if I kept going to jail. Although I did not want to stop using drugs or alcohol, I knew that if I did not, I would inevitably find myself back in jail, and one day they wouldn’t let me out. It turns out I am alive today because law enforcement did not excuse my behaviors. After 42 arrests and countless close calls, I have been clean and sober since March 20, 1995, due in large part to law enforcement, detention facilities and specialty courts.
I gained a lot of experience during my addiction career that gave me the tools I need to be successful today. The ability to pivot and make life work right after parts were burned down became second nature. I now use those experiences to help others get free from the cycle of addiction.
In the mid-1990s, my friend finished his tour in the U.S. Army and started his career in law enforcement. In 2011, he ran Denton’s drug task force as a sergeant with our local sheriff’s office and was asked to give a comment to the news about recent heroin-overdose deaths. That evening, he watched the footage to make sure his comments came across as he intended. Across town, I was reviewing that same footage, for the same reason. I had also been asked to give comments on the deaths because I ran a nonprofit treatment center in the area. As we watched the live broadcast and heard each other’s comments, the thought came to each of us that we were both addressing the same problem from two different viewpoints.
The next day, we met in person and confirmed that together – a super drug cop and a super drug offender – we could collaborate and make a meaningful impact on our community. Who knows addicts better than a fellow addict, and who understands our movements better than law enforcement? It only made sense to team up.
We discovered this was a winning concept, and our collaboration quickly began yielding spectacular results. When 80% of all new criminal charges (directly or indirectly) involve drugs and alcohol, we must concede that addiction is one of our greatest social issues. Only 10% of the men and women in our county jails are going to prison. This means 90% will be released right back into the community, no better off than the day they were arrested. This is alarming ... however, it also presents a great opportunity when seen from a collaborative point of view.
I have found this simple equation to be true: Enforcement plus opportunity plus leverage equals the very best combination to change the course of someone’s life.
Can we make it a norm?
Not many people will wake up and decide they need treatment because they may cause themselves harm in the future. In my experience, consequences are what make us willing to change. I had no intention of stopping until I was held accountable for my actions and leveraged into making better decisions.
Judicial entities, detention centers and people like my friend have always excelled at enforcement. Opportunity is present in every case. It just takes acknowledgment of a pathway to recovery through programming, education and accountability. Leverage can be applied through such things as requirements on a release order, familial struggle, or a better plea deal offer. Together, they present a solid case for getting on a new path. The simplest way to put it: The way they’re doing things isn’t working, so here’s a new way.
Of course, none of this would matter if the enforcement, opportunity and leverage had no depth or weight. Without collaboration, this simple equation just doesn’t work. We have all read the occasional story of the criminal who turned it all around and now works with law enforcement. From hacking computers to robbing banks, these rare individuals have been able to recreate their lives. Is it possible to make this the norm, rather than the occasional?
My friend and I now work through a nonprofit to bring 50-plus years’ of experience in addiction treatment and drug enforcement, which has culminated in developing a very specific and unique program for our county jails. Our uncommon approach has been recognized by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and has partnered with IGNITE (Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education) through the National Sheriff’s Association to make it accessible across the country. To learn more about The Solution, visit www.sontx.org/justice or email email@example.com.
Let’s play cops and robbers for real.
About the author
Scott Wisenbaker is executive director at Solutions of North Texas, a provider of substance abuse treatment services based in Denton, Texas.