Police presence discouraging exchange of needles

Eau Claire Police cruiser parked across the street from the ARCW in the Schlegelmilch-McDaniel parking lot. ©2016 Bryan Hellios

Eau Claire Police cruiser parked across the street from the ARCW in the Schlegelmilch-McDaniel parking lot. ©2016 Bryan Hellios

“Dirty” syringes waiting for disposal as a part of the needle exchange program. ©2016 Bryan Hellios
“Dirty” syringes waiting for disposal as a part of the needle exchange program. ©2016 Bryan Hellios

By Bryan Hellios

With a steady hand, “Seth” placed the tip of his syringe into a spoon filled with a white cloudy liquid. He closely watched the liquid rise up the barrel as he pulled back on the plunger. Seth held up his needle and flicked the tip.

“I don’t like to do this in front of people. I’ll be back in a minute,” Seth said before closing his bedroom door behind him.

After a few minutes, the door opened and Seth bee-lined to his kitchen. Opening a top cabinet, He pried off the lid of a Folgers Coffee container, and made sure the syringe’s protective cap was secured before dropping it into the can.

“A lot of the problem is not getting the syringes,” Seth said. “It’s what to do with the dirty ones.”

The Aids Resource Network of Wisconsin (ARCW) operates a needle exchange program called Lifepoint. The program provides new needles for free and encourages intravenous and illegal drug users to return any used needles so they can be disposed of properly to avoid health risks.

But some needle users say what appears to be increased police presence near the ARCW building on Dewey Street is discouraging people, like Seth, from using the exchange program. *Seth, who asked that his real name not be used, is a regular at ARCW, using an estimated 200 needles a month.

“Seeing the police parked outside makes me not want to even look at the building,” Seth said.

Eau Claire Police cruiser parked across the street from the ARCW in the Schlegelmilch-McDaniel parking lot. ©2016 Bryan Hellios
Eau Claire Police cruiser parked across the street from the ARCW in the Schlegelmilch-McDaniel parking lot. ©2016 Bryan Hellios

Bill Keeton, vice president of government and public relations at the Milwaukee office of the ARCW, said he has not been made aware of any police presence by its Eau Claire office.

“It (police presence) could certainly have a chilling effect on the exchange activities,” Keeton said.

Keeton said he would contact ARCW staff in Eau Claire, but he said they typically maintain good relations with both public health departments and law enforcement.  

Kyle Roder, community relations officer for the Eau Claire Police Department, said he doesn’t know of police officers parking near ARCW and is not aware of the department monitoring users of the needle exchange. Roder said communication signal strength, flow of traffic or an officer having a vested interest in a particular neighborhood may be some reasons why officers park where they do.

“As far as to why officers write reports in certain areas, I can’t answer that,” Roder said.

Seth said he believes the officers are parked by the exchange to track who enters the building.

“Possession of a dirty needle is a crime,” Seth said.

Under Wisconsin law, any person possessing a needle with the intent to use an illegal drug may be fined not more than $500 and/or face 30 days in jail.

Hypodermic syringes are excluded from being categorized as drug paraphernalia unless they contain a drug residue.

Chad Hoyord, deputy chief of patrol for the Eau Claire Police Department, said police look at the totality of the situation before issuing a ticket.

“I think you would have to prove what their intent is and what they are doing with it,” Hoyord said.

In order for a syringe to be classified as drug paraphernalia, Hoyord said they would have to prove some sort of drug was in it.

“Our intention is not to deter people from using the program,” Hoyord said.

Hoyord’s assurances aside, others share Seth’s concern. On a recent visit to ARCW a number of users waited in the lobby talking among themselves and refusing to leave until the police car parked directly across the street left.

There are numerous reports throughout the country showing that a police presence by an exchange does impact the program’s use.

Unnamed addicts filed a lawsuit against a Connecticut Police Department in 2001. The court’s decision ruled that the police were ordered not to harass or intimidate people who were using the needle exchange program.

In that same case, the Federal Court dismissed the state’s argument that program participants were criminally liable if they possessed used syringes containing trace amounts of drug residue. The court ruled that allowing prosecution for possession of used needles would invite the Bridgeport Police to abuse the Fourth Amendment.

In Eau Claire, Paulette Magur, a registered nurse and public health nursing supervisor, said the ARCW does help reduce the number of needles found in the community. Magur said if people don’t have access to clean needles using and sharing them increases the risks of Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B and HIV.

“If they are using their own needles and not sharing them,” Magur said. “The only risk would be developing an infection (from injection).”

According to Wisconsin Department of Health Services Hepatitis C (HVC) Surveillance Summary, Eau Claire County had 25 cases of HVC reported in 2012. In 2013, there were 52 new cases, and 2014 brought an additional 58 cases. The study revealed most people get infected with HVC by sharing needles or other equipment to inject drugs.

Magur said health care officials don’t know whether an increase in drug use can be correlated to sexually transmitted disease rates in the area, but her department supports what the ARCW is doing.   

“Whether they give them education or give them needles,” Magur said, “the mission of the ARCW is to decrease illness and decrease the spread of illness.”

For now, Seth said he will continue to use the program but take precautions to avoid the police. If he sees them parked outside the ARCW, he waits until they are gone to turn in his needles.