If a town could be said to hit rock bottom, Austin, Indiana did so this year. The drug abuse problem had been out of hand for several years, but it took the worst possible outcome to make this community wake up: More than 170 newly identified cases of HIV since December, spread almost entirely by needle sharing.
State and federal officials led an emergency response to control the outbreak. But for locals, the real work of change and recovery is just beginning. Facing the problem is always the first step, and there are signs of hope in Austin.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Police Chief Don Spicer is on patrol in Austin, Indiana. He drives through the northern part of town, where dilapidated houses are interspersed among tidy ones with manicured lawns.
After moving through some of the busier neighborhood streets, he heads west across the interstate. Next stop: Spicertown, a part of Austin named after Don’s family, who has owned land here for four generations. He slows down where his childhood home used to stand, the two trees he used as a teen to practice parallel parking.
“I spent a lot of time on this street as a kid,” he recalls.
This connection he has to the town determines how he does his job as police chief. “It gives me a drive to do things that other people might not want to do to make it a better place to live,” he says. “You want it to be safer. You don’t want the drugs here. You work harder to eliminate those things.”
“Normal now is going to be different than it used to be.”
Austin has become a mecca for illegal drug use and crime. The problem was painfully highlighted by the HIV outbreak that hit this spring.
As grim as the HIV situation is, Don says he sees a ray of hope in the fact that the rest of the community is waking up to the problems he’s been struggling with for years.
“I think the people just want things to get back to normal,” he says. “Normal now is going to be different than it used to be.”
Don’s own views on Austin’s addiction problem have evolved since the crisis broke. For one thing, he understands now that addicts are trapped in a cycle of craving and withdrawal pains.
“I’ve learned that people don’t just take drugs to get high,” he says. “I’m learning that a lot of the users are just doing it to stop the sickness.”
His new views helped him embrace a controversial program: the needle exchange that started in April. Drug users in Scott County can now get free, sterile syringes every week, and the police can no longer arrest them for carrying drug paraphernalia.
At first, Don was against the idea, since it limits what he can do to combat drug use. But the needle exchange also connects users to treatment, and now Don is all for it.
“I was seeing one side of it, I guess,” he says. “Now I’m able to see some of it from perspective. I think that’ll make us better policemen at the end of the day because we’ll have a little more compassion for the user.”
When Don became a police officer 20 years ago, substance abuse was mostly limited to alcohol and marijuana. But then came Oxycontin in the late 1990s, and several years later, an even more addictive opioid, Opana.
The problem for Don Spicer isn’t just the drugs; it’s everything that comes with them. At $160 a pill, Opana use is an expensive habit. Petty crime and prostitution are rampant as users try to pay for their next hit. And the high street price means there’s a strong incentive to sell, too. The pills are rarely hard to find.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the world is on fire and all I have is a garden hose.”
All this means a lot of work for the police. But Don’s department is small. “We should really have a 12-man staff,” he says. “But we only have six. What can I do? I do as much as I can.”
Most of the time, there’s only one officer on patrol. Some volunteers help fill in gaps, but Don still doesn’t think it’s enough to police a city of 4,200 people. He says with the calls he gets regarding the street crime, there’s little time to tackle the drugs.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that the world is on fire and all I have is a garden hose. So I can only put out a few fires,” he says. “I can’t put ‘em all out.”
There’s not much police can do to intervene before addiction sets in. Don says he often sees young people succumb to addiction who were exposed to drug use in their homes when they were little kids.
“They can’t seem to break that cycle,” he says. “Some of them, you think, ‘Man, this kid don’t have a chance.’ And in all honesty, they don’t. If they grow up watching these things happen, they tend to want to follow that same path.”
Still, Don tries to help where he can. When he visits homes in Austin, he talks to kids, sometimes bringing them stickers or stuffed animals, so they’ll think of the police as friends. You never know what might put a kid on a different path.
“We can make positive impacts on a few people,” he says. “There are some results you see from time to time.”
“It’s a very bad thing that’s going on with the disease, the health issues, but so much good’s going to come from it.”
Don has requested additional funds from the county and is looking for grants to be able to pay for more officers. He’s hopeful about Austin’s future. In the long run, he says the HIV outbreak may be what turns Austin around, as the community is finally waking up to the problems his department’s been grappling with for years.
“I see this as a golden opportunity to exploit some resources that we would have not had available had this not happened,” he says. “It’s a very bad thing that’s going on with the disease, the health issues, but so much good’s going to come from it.”
At the end of his shift, Don pulls up to a curb by the police station, and a man walks up to the window of his squad car. Chuckie Bowling was a drug user for years until an arrest by Don brought him to a turning point.
“I got arrested and got ten years,” Chuckie recalls. “And I woke up and said, ‘Look, you gonna live here the rest of your life or you gonna watch your kids grow up?’”
Now, Chuckie has been clean for nine years and counts Don as a friend. He’ll stop him in the streets to chat, or swing by the bait shop Don runs in his off hours.
“I can get out and do whatever I want to, and just, I mean, live my life the way I wanna live it,” Chuckie says.
As Chuckie walks back toward his apartment, the two make a plan to go fishing before Don rolls up his window. “That’s really why we do what we do,” Don says. “You wanna make a difference.”