Athol police chief shares story of opioid addiction in his family

Recorder Staff
Published: 6/1/2017 11:37:48 PM

ATHOL — Police Chief Russell Kleber was the first to speak Thursday night at the community forum. He didn’t hesitate with his words.

“I shared a bed with a heroin addict,” Athol’s police chief began. “That addict was my brother.”

Kleber continued: It was nearly 50 years ago that he shared that bed in a household with several children. While his father was a teacher, an artist and a naturalist, he said, Kleber “became a police officer because of my brother.”

The chief continued to share his story — broadcasted on Athol Orange Community Television — at the third of four town meetings the Opioid Task Force is hosting across the region.

“He fought addiction for 35 years. Didn’t beat it,” Kleber said about his brother. “This has been going on a for a long time. This was ignored for years and now it’s back in vengeance.”

Right after the police chief spoke to those gathered for the forum at the Athol Memorial Hospital, the town’s fire chief John Duguay delivered his own remarks on the opioid epidemic.

“I too have a very close family member that lives under my roof now” who struggles with addiction, Duguay said, choked up. “This is extremely hard.”

He thanked the task force and the people gathered, including Rep. Susannah Whipps, R-Athol, for the work they’re doing to fight the crisis.

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “I just wish there were more answers.”

The chiefs addressed the opioid epidemic that continues to plague communities across not only the region, but the country. In 2016, three people died from opioid-related usage in Athol, up one from two in the prior year. Statewide the crisis has continued on as fentanyl — a more potent, synthetic opioid, often laced with heroin — has made it more challenging for first-responders to help save lives.

Kleber discussed how he has seen the epidemic play out recently with the panel, which included the task force’s co-founder John Merrigan, Northwest District Attorney David Sullivan, Franklin County Sheriff and Orange-native Christopher Donelan and Vice President of Community Health at Athol Hospital Rebecca Bialecki.

He spoke about the help he has received from the fire department, the Orange police force, the North Quabbin Community Coalition and the Opioid Task Force. He spoke about the need for officers and first-responders to always be equipped with Narcan, the nasal spray that can help to reverse an overdose. He also spoke about how to address the issue.

“I don’t want to put an addict in jail. That’s not going to help,” Kleber said, later adding that it is important to assist those who are fighting addiction by helping them to seek treatment. For example, he said, if police respond to a drug overdose, they will not charge the patient with possession of the drugs.

He added, “I will say that if you are a drug dealer you need to go to jail and go to jail for a very long time.”

The fire chief spoke about the need for his staff to have a support system for all the trauma related to the opioid epidemic they routinely face.

“They have to see this everyday,” Duguay said. “I’d like to see something for them. Some type of support. Maybe come out to the fire station.”

The panel seemed welcoming to the idea, acknowledging the need to help everyone involved in the crisis.

“There’s not only a financial toll on the town, but there’s a huge personal toll,” Whipps said, noting additional support should be worked out for first-responders.

The final message the police chief wanted to instil was that families should seek him and his officers out for help.

“If you got a problem, you got a friend right here,” Kleber said. “You don’t call me to scare your children, you call me to help your children.”

Final forum

The final community forum hosted by the Opioid Task Force will be at the Greenfield Community College, Thursday, June 8 from 6 to 8 p.m. A light dinner will be served, starting at 5:30 p.m.

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