A Rural Police Chief Asks Citizens To Help Pick Up Used Syringes

Apr 28, 2015
Originally published on May 3, 2015 7:55 pm

Patrick Pezzati walks briskly through downtown Turners Falls in western Massachusetts with a hard plastic bottle in one pocket of his shorts and a pair of latex gloves in the other.

He stops to peer down steps leading to a basement. Later, he peers under a chunk of carpet lying outside.

The local record store owner is scouring the back alleys of this picturesque former mill town for used needles.

As the last of the snow melts in New England, an assortment of debris is emerging — including heroin syringes. It's gotten so bad in this small town that the police chief asked civilians like Pezzati for help.

Now that heroin has gotten cheaper and easier to find in rural towns like this, discarded syringes are turning up everywhere. Chip Dodge, the local police chief, says his small force can't keep up.

"We're getting five, six calls a week about needles," he says.

It's gotten worse, Dodge says, since Massachusetts legalized possession of hypodermic needles in 2006. That meant less spread of disease through needle-sharing — but more needles around.

To demonstrate, Dodge pulls up last month's police log on his computer and reads off a list of where syringes have been found: two by a tree in a park, one on a sidewalk, another by an ATM, yet another sticking into a bank of snow.

The final straw was when a 2-year-old boy stepped on a syringe in his back yard and ended up in the hospital. That's when Dodge posted his request on the department's Facebook page, asking Turners Falls residents to help pick up — carefully — dirty needles.

"It's a very strange request, I will admit," the police chief says. "It's sort of like asking somebody to pick up a weapon."

But he says police are no better at handling needles than anyone else. They use gloves, avoid the pointy end and put them in a strong container.

"I absolutely have faith in the community and I do believe they have the common sense to not injure themselves," Dodge says.

Public reaction was swift. Residents like Pezzati offered to organize community needle hunts.

"Better I find it than a 6-year-old," Pezzati says.

But plenty of people have no intention of heeding the chief's call. Michael Crabtree is collecting bottles and cans behind a dumpster. What will he do if comes across a syringe?

"Call the police and let them deal with it," he says. "I don't think I'd even want to touch no freakin' dirty needle. Could get pricked with the thing and get AIDS, or who knows what."

Other communities that are struggling with a surge in heroin addiction, including Scott County, Ind., also have volunteers picking up discarded needles.

But in Massachusetts, none of the police departments in neighboring towns have asked for community help. Even among his colleagues, Dodge is seen as a bit of a rogue.

Gina McNeely, public health director for Turners Falls, says the chief's intentions are good — but she doesn't like civilians taking on such a delicate task.

"People, they get nervous, they get scared," McNeely says. "They may or may not drop it. It may stick in their foot."

Chief Dodge says anyone squeamish around needles is still welcome to dial 911. His officers may just be busy — responding to, among other things, several heroin overdoses a month. And that's an even harder problem than needle disposal.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When the last of the snow finally melted in New England, all kinds of debris emerged, including syringes. It points to the increased use of opioids in the region. In one Western Massachusetts town, it's gotten so bad, police are asking people to help pick up needles. New England Public Radio's Karen Brown reports.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: Patrick Pezzati walks briskly through downtown Turners Falls, Mass. with a hard plastic bottle in one shorts pocket and a pair of latex gloves in the other. He stops to peer down steps leading to a basement.

PATRICK PEZZATI: Because it's down low, somebody could sit down there and, you know, and kind of not be seen.

BROWN: And maybe shoot up.

PEZZATI: This would be the kind of place, but, nothing here right now.

BROWN: Pezzati, a local record store owner, is scouring the back alleys of this picturesque former mill town for used needles.

PEZZATI: There's a big chunk of carpet and I was just looking underneath and seeing if there's anything there.

BROWN: Why? Because the police asked for help. As heroin gets cheaper and easier to find in rural towns like this, users throw their syringes all over the place. Police Chief Chip Dodge says his small force can't keep up.

CHIP DODGE: We're getting five, six calls a week about needles.

BROWN: It's gotten worse, he says, since Massachusetts legalized possession of hypodermic needles in 2006. That meant less spread of disease through needle-sharing, but more needles around.

DODGE: Two needles by a tree at Unity Park.

BROWN: To demonstrate, Dodge pulls up last month's police log on his computer.

DODGE: Again Third Street, a syringe on a sidewalk. Credit union, syringe found by their ATM machine. A guy walking a dog found a syringe sticking into a snow bank.

BROWN: The last straw was a 2-year-old boy who stepped on a syringe in his backyard and ended up in the hospital. That's when Dodge logged on to the department's Facebook page and asked Turners Falls residents to carefully help pick up dirty needles.

DODGE: It's a very strange request, I will admit. It's sort of like asking somebody to pick up a weapon.

BROWN: But he says police are no better at handling needles than anyone. They use gloves, a strong container and avoid the prickly end.

DODGE: I absolutely have faith in the community and I do believe they have the common sense to not injure themselves.

PEZZATI: We'll go down one more alley right here.

BROWN: Public reaction was swift. Residents like Patrick Pezzati offered to organize community needle hunts.

PEZZATI: Better I find it than, you know, a 6-year-old.

BROWN: But plenty of people have no intention of heeding the chief's call. Michael Crabtree is collecting bottles and cans behind a dumpster. What will he do if he comes across a syringe?

MICHAEL CRABTREE: I don't know. Maybe call the police and let them deal with it, you know? Yeah, I don't think I'd even want to touch no freaking dirty needle, you know? Could get pricked with the thing and get AIDS or who knows what? Hep C or who the hell knows, you know?

BROWN: None of the police departments in neighboring towns have asked for community help. Even among his colleagues, Dodge is seen as a bit of a rogue. Gina McNeely, public health director for Turners Falls, says the chief's intentions are good, but she doesn't like civilians taking on such a delicate task.

GINA MCNEELY: People, they get nervous, they get scared. They may or may not drop it, it may stick in their foot.

BROWN: Chief Dodge says anyone squeamish around needles is still welcome to dial 911. His officers may just be busy responding to, among other things, several heroin overdoses a month. And that's an even harder problem than needle disposal. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown in Western Massachusetts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.