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How the Reaching Rural Initiative helps law enforcement reduce the damage opiates wreak on their communities

This new program helps people in small places who have a big idea shape that concept into something concrete – and they want more cops and corrections on board

Girl sitting in the background, with drugs on the table

Any officer with an idea for reducing the damage opiates wreak on their community can apply, solo or with a team of associates and coworkers.

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The Reaching Rural Initiative (RRI) is a year-long training and technical assistance program intended to assist professionals in public safety and public health in mitigating opiate addiction in rural communities. RRI helps people in small places who have a big idea shape that concept into something concrete, using funds primarily provided by the National Opioids Settlement. The people running the fellowship program want more law enforcement officers involved in the coming years.

Police: Responsibility without resources

“Police are triage,” Denise Waff said. She’s the director of Riverside Criminal Justice Agency and a fellow from RRI’s inaugural cohort. And she’s right: for better or worse, LEOs are both a last resort and the first line of response for suspects who use illegal drugs or have mental illness, or both. Something bad happens; the cops are called and intervene. Maybe they make an arrest, or maybe they use Narcan to reverse an overdose. Then what?

“Do they take them to the emergency room?” Waff asked. “To jail?” What works best for the safety of the community, for wise stewardship of tax dollars, or for the person who’s the subject of the call? Even when officers are CIT-trained (as all the officers in her area are), it’s a conundrum.

Solving that riddle is why Waff applied for a fellowship in the Reaching Rural Initiative. With the funding the program provides and the collective experience of the network it developed, she wants to institute a crisis receiving center (CRC) where officers can bring someone who needs more than just a jail bed and a few hours to sober up. A CRC would provide a place to take a subject who is willing to participate and needs resources emergency rooms and police can’t offer: immediate connections to mental health and addiction treatment, along with basics like food, clean clothing, a shower and eventually, housing in recovery. For LEOs, that means more time responding to calls for service and fighting crime, and less time applying short-term solutions to long-term problems rooted in social issues.

Bringing ideas to life

I spoke with Tara Kunkel of Rulo Strategies, LLC, one of the co-directors of RRI along with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and several others. In 2023, their first cohort numbered 67 participants including 14 individuals and ten teams. She was enthusiastic about the fellowship’s first-year successes and committed to bringing on board more law enforcement this next year, both from corrections and patrol.

Any officer with an idea for reducing the damage opiates wreak on their community can apply, solo or with a team of associates and coworkers. In fact, they can apply even without a ready solution in mind. “This last year, several fellows were instrumental in helping others decide how to spend their opioid abatement dollars from pharma lawsuits,” Kunkel said.

In one example, a team from the Texas Panhandle developed an online directory to help street officers find resources, from treatment programs and practitioners to sources for food and housing. The directory is intended to help an officer find solutions for an in-custody who has immediate needs, instead of Googling at 0300 to find someone who will answer a phone. Other programs address medical support for addiction treatment in jails, with continuing support after release. Recent research indicates that this kind of treatment is desperately needed in rural areas.

Real obstacles and concrete solutions

Kunkel worked with federal grants at the BJA until 2020, so she understands the obstacles rural law enforcement agencies encounter when applying for grants. Grant applications are time-consuming and nitpicky. They require a lot of documentation, so big departments have entire self-funding classes of employees dedicated to them.

“It’s hard for small departments to compete for funding with urban and suburban agencies. This (fellowship program) is intended to fill the gap. The application is streamlined, especially compared to the federal system,” she said. Funds are always tight for small and rural law enforcement agencies; with that in mind, the RRI program provides funding for travel costs as fellows meet in person for site visits. The final funding award at the completion of the program is $100,000, intended as “bridge money” to kickstart each new project and carry them to funding requests for ongoing work.

There are several benefits specific to the RRI fellowship program. First, Kunkel says, is the creation of a network with other rural professionals across the country. Distance and small populations can create isolation and the feeling that each person is the only one struggling with problems that, in reality, are common in most communities.

The next benefit is on-demand access to consultants and coaches working on each site’s project. Teams and solo fellows receive technical assistance from other professionals already experienced in the kinds of projects they are working to implement.

Next, RRI “demystifies” access to funding. Fellows are matched with help to find grants and other funding sources, along with coaching and mentorship in processes that can seem overwhelming, like petitioning legislators for specific budget allocations.

Waff said that the time obligations were daunting at first. She intended originally to apply to RRI as a team; as deadlines neared, the complexity of assembling a team of like-minded stakeholders grew unmanageable so she simplified the matter by applying solo. She’s glad she applied.

“It (RRI) takes you out of your silo, so you foster relationships with others in similar situations, ” Waff said. “You end up being able to see issues through many perspectives, many lenses. Every site visit was inspiring and motivational. The fellowship helped me connect with resources, and hopefully, things will get real by next year.”

The dozens of fellows in RRI’s first year – probation officers, social workers, judges, counselors, professors, public health practitioners, attorneys and more – are deep in the implementation phase of the projects they worked on all year. In the years to come, Kunkel hopes more LEOs join their ranks.

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.