Needle, drug use epidemic prompts action from BART

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- On a BART ride into San Francisco from the East Bay one of our reporters came across hypodermic needles left behind on a seat and immediately started asking questions. BART replied by saying the agency is participating in a pilot program aimed at tackling the underlying problem, addiction.

The agency invited ABC 7 News Reporter Katie Utehs to shadow its two BART police officers who are doing drug intervention work. They primarily patrol the Powell Street and Civic Center stations, which are the areas where drugs are sold, consumed, and homeless people often gather.

RELATED: Needles found on BART, agency joins program to treat addiction

"Are you all right? Do you need anything?" asks Officer David Touie, as he approaches a man sleeping on the station floor.

The tone of Ofc. Touie's greeting is finely tuned from years working as a bartender. He knows how to approach people, meet them where they're at.

"You need some socks? I got a pair. I'll get you a pair," he continues. The man he's talking to is barefoot, dirty, and clearly struggling.

Perhaps bar-tending was practice for his new regulars, people who've truly hit bottom.

Ofc. Touie walks to the BART police station. He's wearing a microphone for our story. On his way back with the socks it captures his heavy sigh. You can sense his work, at times, is emotionally draining.

"All right partner these are the good kind, Thinsulate. Keep your feet warm. I need you to sit up," says Ofc. Touie as he hands the man the socks.

Officers Touie and Eric Hofstein, a former EMT, often work together patrolling the downtown San Francisco stations. The two talk candidly as we follow them in the stations and on the trains.

"We're a little city on train tracks," says Ofc. Touie.

And like cities across the country BART has a problem.

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"These days in BART I'm looking for the needle so nobody gets poked," says Ofc. Hofstein as he traces his flashlight in the area where the wall meets the floor. He says he's especially mindful of people with sight impairment and people who use service dogs because they may be following the walls. He doesn't want them or anybody else for that matter inadvertently getting poked.

While riding a station elevator we ask a woman what she sees around the stations. Marissa Giani, a BART rider from San Mateo says, "I see needles, I see OD (overdose), I see drugs being sold, drugs being done, drugs being stuffed in their mouths." She goes on, but it gets graphic. When the doors open we're hit with a cloud of smoke and a man runs away. The officers say it was likely crack smoke because it was odorless. People find the nooks and crannies in the stations to cook and inject or smoke drugs. They're quick too and often gone by the time patrons have notified BART police.

Many people don't seem to notice or just choose to ignore it and go about their commute.

As documented in this picture and Tweet it was my own encounter with needles on BART that brought the issue to my attention. I boarded the train in San Leandro for a ride into San Francisco. A disheveled man was standing as I sat down across the aisle. Then as he walked away I looked over to discover needles and cigarette butts left in the seat and on the floor.

"If the arrest and the incarceration isn't addressing the root of the problem, which is addiction you're still going to have the same results in the end," says Ofc. Hofstein, during our station tour.

"Frances, you need to pack that up please," says one of the officers as he approaches a regular. They know many of the people by name because they see them often. Especially when it rains. One man, they tell me, is a former scientist who was laid-off when a lab shut down. Another is an orphan from Africa whose parents died from the AIDs epidemic. His adoptive mother was unable to treat his mental health problems before he turned to drugs to self-medicate. She checks in on him.

Ofcs. Touie and Hofstein know the backstories, the circumstances of those desperate enough to sleep in a train station. It makes them ideal partners for SF's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, known as LEAD. Officers can connect low level offenders to treatment services instead of jail.

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"We know from research overtime is that when somebody is in custody for brief amounts of time and their needs aren't being met that we're not addressing the needs and behaviors and circumstances that lead to that arrest," explains Dr. Angelica Almeida, with San Francisco's Department of Public Health. She oversees the LEAD program. Essentially, short jail stints with no corrective plan or treatment will usually result in a cycle of arrest, release, and repeat. It's a pattern known as recidivism.

"This is a way to break the cycle, look at things creatively, and to do something differently," says Dr. Almeida.

The law enforcement partnership with the Department of Public Health is funded by a grant and based on a Seattle program launched there in 2011. These are the other SF agencies involved in the pilot:
San Francisco Department of Public Health (lead agency)

San Francisco Police Department
San Francisco Adult Probation Department
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Police
San Francisco District Attorney's Office
San Francisco Public Defender's Office
San Francisco Sheriff's Department

Dr. Almeida says agencies across the country are trying LEAD too.

Officers have made nine pre-booking interventions since the pilot launched in October. Ofcs Touie and Hofstein say LEAD won't be a cure all, but it's another tool for them.

In the meantime, BART says the agency is adding cleaning crews to address the immediate bio-hazardous waste from needle use.

Click here for more on SF's LEAD program.

Click here for more on the original LEAD program started in Seattle.
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