I-Team

Small Waukesha community makes strides to stop the growing heroin epidemic

CREATED Feb 18, 2014 - UPDATED: Feb 18, 2014

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EAGLE - Eagle.  Population 1,950.  The minute you enter the village, you just feel like you're home.  

Police Chief Russ Ehlers explains, "It's a safe village to live in, but we have issues like anyone else.  The issues we discovered, a couple of years ago, I think came as kinda a surprise to us."

The main issue--a rapid increase in heroin use and deaths:  3 deaths within 18 months.  Chief Ehlers admits he didn't know where to start.  "Literally asking myself what I would say if a parent walked in my office and said, 'Chief, my child died of a heroin overdose, what are you doing about it?'  And the honest answer would have been, not much." 

That's not the case anymore, as police are constantly patrolling the streets, and performing traffic stops that often result in drug seizures.

Eagle is not alone.  In Waukesha County heroin-related deaths tripled from 2011 to 2012, and the numbers don't look to be going down any time soon.

When asked if he would call it an epidemic, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel said, "Absolutely I would."

Schimel says the number of accidental opiate overdose deaths, including heroin, is now almost double the traffic deaths in the county.

"Can you imagine what we'd do if we saw traffic deaths quadrupling over a 10-year period?  We'd have a roundabout every 200 feet, I mean we would absolutely be freaked out," he says.

Schimel admits that heroin epidemics happen every few decades, but this time around, it's a whole new drug.  "Much purer than it was even a couple decades ago, and because of that you don't need to start up injecting heroin anymore, you can start up snorting it."  Schimel adds, "The problem is once you snort heroin, within about 6 months you will be an intravenous user."

Back in Eagle, police are determined to stop that deadly cycle, and take a no tolerance approach.  He says it's working.  "We're not hiding the fact that we're doing this, because we don't want to hide that fact, we want people to know we're out doing this--good people and the bad people.  The drug runners, the users." 

The numbers are there to back it up.  In 2013 alone, 31 felony drug arrests for this tiny village.

"I'll submit Eagle is certainly a safer place to live now than it was 2 yrs ago, as is evidenced by the amount of drugs we've taken off the street," Chief Ehlers says.

Enforcement, but also prevention--a combination Schimel hopes will eventually stop the problem before it can happen.  "Problem is once it comes to my office, it's too late."  Schimel adds, "You don't know what day your kids gonna be exposed to this stuff, and it's almost a certainty they will.  You gotta talk to your kids... I'm talking to mine." 

There is some action in Madison to fight this war on heroin.  Various bills are passing through the house, including more funding for treatment and diversion programs. 

There is also a big Heroin Awareness Rally at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Menomonee Falls Wednesday, February 26.  District Attorney Schimel will be one of the speakers, along with some parents who have lost children to heroin.  The public is encouraged to attend.