Ithaca police chief: Officers will not turn blind eye to drug users, will enforce drug laws

ITHACA, N.Y. – If safe injection sites and heroin assisted therapy are put into effect in Ithaca, local police officers will be bound to enforce federal and state drug laws – with no exceptions – Police Chief John Barber said Wednesday morning.

He said he opposes the two most controversial parts of the program: supervised safe injection sites and assisted therapy.

"The reason I oppose that primarily is because I have taken an oath to uphold the law and I will not condone the use of heroin, which is an illegal substance, whether it's supervised or not. I just won't do it," he said.

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Barber's stance on the facilities are the opposite of what Vancouver police did when a similar drug plan was proposed an enacted in the city.

Vancouver is the only city in North America with supervised safe injection facilities.

“We have those who are choosing to use drugs, regardless of the policing,” said Sgt. Randy Fincham of the Vancouver Police Department during a phone interview with the Ithaca Voice. “And we’re asking officers to turn a blind eye to that with the ultimate goal being public safety.”

Related: Ithaca looks to Vancouver on drug policy; focus on treatment over enforcement

Barber is aware of the VPD's decision and understand's people's concerns for addressing public safety -- a concern he also shares.

"I had a friend who lost her daughter to heroin. It hits close to home for me and for people that I know. And in this small community, a number of people know someone who's been effected by this horrible drug," he said.

Barber served on the Municipal Drug Task Force to specifically address the Law Enforcement pillar -- one of four introduced in The Ithaca Plan to create a comprehensive policy about drug use. He became aware of the details of the other pillars this week.

"I heard that it's working in other countries. I don't know enough about it to verify that but that's my understanding is that it is working," he said about injection sites and heroin therapy.

Regardless, he said The Ithaca Plan will have to overcome city, state and federal hurdles if it's enacted as proposed.

During a news conference Wednesday morning, Mayor Svante Myrick said he and plan supporters have no intention of opening the proposed facilities only to have them be closed down by police or federal officials within days of opening.

"We hope to work with the governor's office," he said, along with launching an "aggressive" lobbying campaign with state officials in Albany.

Barber said, "I think if that's a route that we were to take in the city it would have to be by changing the laws. It has to be lawful in order to get support from me or members of my police department. We're not going to look the other way. It has to be done correctly."