Why were the police so mad at me?

With the benefit of sobriety and helping others, a recovering addict forges new relationships with law enforcement

By Scott Wisenbaker

Why were cops always so mad at me?

I understand now. It took years to figure out, but once I was able to see things from their point of view, it clicked immediately.

I recall every arresting officer, at one point or another, suggesting I do something about my addiction.
I recall every arresting officer, at one point or another, suggesting I do something about my addiction. (Getty Images)

I am a treatment provider. More to the point, I have been clean and sober since March 20, 1995. I spent years dragging people to treatment before I realized I was performing interventions. I knew I had found a way out, and after watching a long stream of men and women die from their addictions, I wanted to share it with as many people as I could.

But it was frustrating. It seemed that whether people completed treatment or a stay in jail, the outcome was usually the same. The door opened, and the world and all its responsibilities demanded immediate attention. And if someone was not fully prepared with a solid survival plan, they didn’t stand a chance.

The more I looked, the more failure I saw. It started to make me sick, so I followed up with those I took to treatment and those I knew coming out of jail. I realized leaving one facility was not that different from leaving the other. Finally, the answer was so obvious that it hit me in the face. Or, as we say in Texas, “If it had been a rattlesnake, it woulda bit me!”

Outreach from the outset

Aftercare! The answer is and has always been aftercare. We also refer to this as a “warm handoff,” but most people have only heard this new term in recent years. This is the concept of developing relationships outside one’s facility to offer collaborative services for the benefit of the client, participant, or inmate. It ensures there are options and those options are known.

But why should we care about one’s options outside our facilities?

This question haunted me for years even after opening my residential aftercare facility. I just could not understand why it was not common sense and common practice. Left to my own devices, I came up with several unsatisfactory answers.

First, I looked at my own industry: addiction treatment. I thought about how careless it is to release someone into the wild without properly arming them with facts and their options. Could it be that if a needed service was not offered by a provider, the issue was ignored? Could it be strictly about financial gain and not what’s in our client’s best interests? Could we, treatment providers, really be this shallow?

Second, I looked at law enforcement. It turns out I had as many misconceptions about them as they did about me. I had zero understanding and spent zero time breaking down this barrier. Ill-conceived as my notions were, one action set in motion a world of change over time.

In 2006 when I opened my center, I made a few phone calls that ended up being more important than I could have imagined. I called the local police department. I just wanted to let them know who I was and what I was doing in hopes they would leave us alone to do our work. While I was active in my addiction, I’d had negative experiences with law enforcement. I could only imagine that the bulk of my future clients would have had the same, the only difference being that the clients’ experiences would probably be more recent than mine. Starting operations without letting the police know and leaving them to one day just stumble across us seemed like a bad idea. Attracting that kind of unwanted attention was the last thing I wanted to do. So, I attempted to thwart such probabilities by facing my own fears and making contact.

Changing perception is a slow burn

The lieutenant I spoke with showed cautious optimism for my plans. I found out years later they were very concerned and kept tabs on me from a short distance. After a year, the lieutenant spoke with me about the number of phone calls they had been receiving about us. I conceded I’d called for assistance three times, but I assured him I’d made some procedural changes and would not need to call again.

Then the lieutenant corrected me about the purpose of his call. He said it was a small number, and if I could actually reduce even that, he would be a fan. He said he expected that, with our target population, they would’ve gotten a significantly higher number of calls. He made sure to let me know he applauded and supported our efforts.

It dawned on me that the police wanted us alcoholics and addicts to get well. If only to keep our community safe, they wanted us to beat our addictions. These officers had never met someone like me, nor had they had the benefit of watching people come back from the gates of hell and thrive where they utterly failed in the past. They did not understand what was happening in my facility any more than they understood me. Some officers kept their distance, believing I would fail, and others sought understanding through conversation.

One day my lieutenant friend called and said, “If you’re going to do this in my town, you need to know about ‘the corner.’” I was set to ride overnight with a young patrol officer and learn about it. It wasn’t a particular corner – it meant all the corners where drug activities took place. As time passed more officers made themselves known to me and opened themselves to conversation. Before long I had friends in the department and on the narcotics task force. I was honest about who I was and what my past looked like, so all this collaboration felt weird. Changing perception is a slow burn.

Together we can accomplish more

So why were the cops always so mad at me?

One day a local girl with a long history of drug abuse and arrests was found dead in her apartment. Everyone had tried to help her, but she just wouldn’t hear it, so it was tragic news to those who had been involved. Many months later, one of my new cop friends asked me if I had seen her about town. He had not heard of her passing, and when I told him, I saw a tear in the corner of his eye. This was the sergeant over narcotics who had arrested her, tried to talk to her, kept tabs on her and asked me to help her. He truly cared about a woman who, at times, could be vile and unlovely. But he understood she was someone’s daughter and a life worth saving. This sergeant showed me truth and understanding – the truth about men and women in law enforcement, the truth about myself, the truth about my circumstances and the truth about how incredibly tragic it is when someone dies from their addiction.

The police arrest us over and over until one day they discover our bodies. They are then tasked with telling our loved ones we will never come home again. How frustrating this must be ... the many times my friends lived through this ... then they come across one of us in the park, getting high, with a bad attitude and foul mouth. Why were they so mad? Well, they were frustrated at our careless lifestyle, vulgar language and lack of respect for our very lives. You cannot experience this over and over without it impacting you on a deep and meaningful level.

It’s times like this when realization sets in, and I weep internally. I suddenly wanted to shake hands and thank every officer who ever held me accountable. However, like so many other people I had treated so poorly, I had no idea of their names or even the number of times I was foul.

Make living amends

As we go through our recovery program, the day comes when we honestly attempt to set right all our wrongs. When we do not recall names or contact info, we set out to make living amends by treating everyone we encounter with respect and open-mindedness. As time passes, more is revealed to us, and we have more to clean up. Here I stood at one of those moments when everything I thought I knew about law enforcement proved incorrect.

I recall every arresting officer, at one point or another, suggesting I do something about my addiction. If there was ever someone who was the very tip of the spear to leverage us into better decisions, it’s law enforcement. Since initiating relationships with law enforcement, I have done my best to work with them to offer options to those in need.

Over the past two decades, I have received many calls from my peers, some warning me and some asking me to stop collaborating with the legal community. I was told it would ruin my credibility in our industry and destroy my facility. Despite these calls, I understood that the men and women who need my help the most end up with legal consequences. If I initiate and maintain relationships throughout the legal community, I stand a far better chance of being able to help those who need it. So no, I will not stop working with my new friends.

As our world shifts into a better understanding of addiction, I find law enforcement is willing to collaborate with us. Many of the very people whose calls I received with ominous warnings are now asking how to best collaborate with our legal system. I can only imagine that most treatment providers are called to the industry because of their own pasts and as such have also had negative contact with law enforcement. Many of them cannot imagine a nonadversarial relationship. But the answer is easy. Be nice and treat them as you would treat anyone else. They are just people who want to help.  

They were never mad at me, they hated my addiction. Now we have a proven strategy.

I now work with these great men and women to battle one of our greatest and deadliest social issues. Our nonprofit has now partnered with IGNITE (Inmate Growth Naturally and Intentionally Through Education) through the National Sheriff’s Association to make an addiction recovery and reintegration program available in county jails across the country. To learn more visit www.sontx.org/justice or email scott@sontx.org

About the author

Scott Wisenbaker is executive director at Solutions of North Texas, a provider of substance abuse treatment services based in Denton, Texas.

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2023 Police1. All rights reserved.