Six weeks ago, Chris McLemore was in the throes of a raging meth problem. The 27-year-old from Pearl River had lost his family, his house and his job during a two-year spiral into addiction and poverty.
Then his brother-in-law, a St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy, persuaded McLemore to take advantage of a new program in St. Tammany Parish called Operation Angel.
In the program, drug addicts can turn in any drugs they have to the police. Then, instead of getting thrown behind bars, they get a ride to the Giving Hope retreat, a Lacombe ranch operated by the New Orleans Mission. There, they get counseling and help treating their addiction.
Operation Angel is the latest front in a creeping evolution in St. Tammany’s approach to the drug problem. Parish leaders — from law enforcement and the judiciary to political leaders — are focusing on treatment-based solutions that work in tandem with the criminal justice system or avoid it altogether.
It is quite a shift for the north shore.
“I guess we used to think we could arrest our way out of our problems,” said Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz, who started Operation Angel.
Now the goal has changed. “The whole mantra is to keep (drug users) out of the criminal justice system,” he said.
Lentz is an unlikely person to be at the forefront of this movement. He’s spent his entire law enforcement career in St. Tammany, retiring after 30 years with the Sheriff’s Office before taking over the Covington Police Department.
Operation Angel is the newest of St. Tammany’s programs, and it’s one of the simplest. An addict can walk into any police station and turn over drugs or paraphernalia. Within an hour, they can be at the north shore home of the New Orleans Mission, where they will get shelter and counseling.
The program was launched May 2. On its first day, a heroin addict walked into the Covington police station and asked for help. “Within 20 minutes, we had him in the back of a police car on his way to the mission,” Lentz said.
Since then, close to 50 people have taken advantage of the opportunity, including McLemore. Although not all of them have stayed with it through the first month’s counseling, Lentz said he’s satisfied with the results.
“If we help one, that will be worth it,” he said.
Operation Angel is the first program of its kind in Louisiana. Lentz modeled it on a similar program in Massachusetts. But before he could get it up and running, he had to get support from the other parts of the law enforcement community.
It's a sign of the changing times in the parish that the buy-in was immediate and unanimous.
Buddy Spell, a Covington criminal defense attorney who has been public about his own struggles with addiction, is a big fan of the new approach. So much so, in fact, that Spell and others are organizing a fundraiser for the New Orleans Mission because of Operation Angel.
Spell praised Lentz for being willing to look anew at the problem.
“Here we have a guy I’ve known for many years who is a tough law-and-order guy who has come to believe that this is a disease, a health crisis first and a criminal situation second,” he said.
Lentz is not the only one who's come to that conclusion.
Parish President Pat Brister has spearheaded an effort to create a behavioral health campus on the site of the old Southeast Louisiana Hospital, which the state planned to close several years ago. The parish bought the site and contracted with a mental health facility to operate the hospital.
St. Tammany Parish officials expect Safe Haven, a behavioral health campus planned on the si…
But Brister has bigger plans: Other parts of the campus will be transformed into a “one-stop shop” that she has termed “Safe Haven.” When complete, it will provide care and counseling for an array of behavioral health issues, including addiction.
The project, which is in the planning stages, could be in operation by mid-2018.
Safe Haven, hopefully, will be an alternative to jail, Brister said.
“We’ve learned there has to be a better way,” she said. “We know these people need more than to be locked up.”
Perhaps nowhere is the shift in attitude more notable than in the District Attorney’s Office, where Warren Montgomery took over from five-term incumbent Walter Reed at the start of 2015. Reed was famous for his tough-on-crime stance — he even created a “St. Slammany Award” for effective prosecutors.
Montgomery ran as a reformer, and one area where he differs from Reed is in his approach to the drug problem.
“It’s important that we keep our eye on the ball to reduce crime,” he said. “But the objective is not to put people in prison.”
Chris McLemore isn’t worried about the parish’s nickname. He’s just glad to have his life back.
His kids visit every week, and he’s feeling better than he has in years.
“You wouldn’t recognize me mentally or physically,” he said. “I feel like a new person.”