Heroin users who wish to be free of their addictions now can find treatment without fear of reprisals from law enforcement.

Working as part of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, Dover police will help people trying to kick the habit instead of arresting them, Chief of Police Paul M. Bernat announced at a Thursday press conference.

“We all understand that addiction is a disease, but also understand that [addicts] need help, and that is what our primary focus is on,” Bernat said.

Under the new ANGEL program, addicts must voluntarily come into the police station and turn in any drugs and drug paraphernalia, Bernat said. From there, they’ll be paired with a volunteer officer who will assist them in getting into one of several recovery treatment clinics in the state.

One of those is the Connections Community Support Programs, which also assists recovering addicts find affordable housing, jobs and healthcare.

Everyone on the Dover force has received training on working with addicts who come into police headquarters on South Queen Street, Bernat said. In addition, eight officers on the force now carry Narcan, also known as Naloxone, and additional officers will be carrying the nasal spray version by September, Bernat said.

Narcan is an antidote for heroin and other opioid overdoses, including fentanyl, a powerful synthetic nervous system depressant. Delaware law enforcement officials have reported increasing instances of fentanyl being mixed with heroin or of heroin users being sold a pure form of the drug, which can be about 40 times as potent as pure heroin.

In many instances, people buying packets of heroin, coming from suppliers in Philadelphia, do not know they are instead purchasing pure fentanyl, Bernat said. Both come in the form of a white powder.

In 2015, Dover police noted an 871 percent increase in the amount of heroin seized over the previous year, Bernat said; that equates to about 1,700 grams, or about 3.75 pounds, of the drug.

Through May 17, 2016, there were 44 fentanyl-related deaths in Delaware, including five in Kent County, according to autopsies conducted by the Division of Forensic Science.

Overall, 228 people died in the First State of overdoses in 2015.

Founded in 2015, PAARI is the brainchild of co-founders, Gloucester, Massachusetts, police Chief Leonard Campanello and John Rosenthal, now its CEO. It operates in conjunction with police agencies in 25 states; its pairing with Dover police is the first in Delaware.

Connections CEO Cathy McKay said one reason for the current heroin epidemic is that some police agencies treat the problem only as a criminal matter, and that many addicts either don’t acknowledge they need help or don’t know how to get it when they do.

“When someone is ready to get help, it has to be accessible right away,” she said. “That always hasn’t been true.”

The war on drugs has criminalized and stigmatized those who suffer from the disease of addiction and hasn’t always made sure people get the support they need to get clean, McKay said. Drug abusers who do get some help often fall back into addiction because they don’t have the guidance they need to stay clean, she added.

The Dover department’s pairing with Connections and other treatment organizations under the ANGEL program may benefit those individuals, she added.

“We’re glad to see the Dover PD is part of this national shift to help people get treatment rather than arrest them,” she said. This program is needed, McKay added, because of estimates that only about 10 percent of those needing help actually reach out to get it.

Rita Landgraf, secretary of the Division of Health and Social Services told the group such programs as the ANGEL initiative are needed, particularly when there is a lack of funding for addiction recovery programs.

For example, the state General Assembly turned down her bid in this year’s budget for additional funding, Landgraf said.

“Sadly, my budget that was passed, my operating budget that starts tomorrow, I lost the $2 million that I had requested for new funding to support addiction and recovery here in our state,” she said.

Instead, Delaware will have to rely on the possibility of receiving $4 million as part of a $1.1 billion proposed federal treatment funding program – if it’s approved by Congress, she said.

Despite the department’s new focus on helping heroin addicts, Dover officers remain committed to pursuing drug traffickers in the city, Bernat said. Additionally, he said anyone wanting to take advantage of the ANGEL program first must answer to any warrants that may have been issued for them.

For complete information on the ANGEL program, contact Dover Police Department spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman at 302-736-7130.