Around 2 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 23, Boulder Police Officer Andrew Heaton was waiting to turn on to Broadway from Lawry Lane when someone started to open the passenger door of his squad car.
Heaton jumped out and asked the 22-year-old woman what she was doing. She told him she was drunk and needed a ride home. Heaton told her he wasn’t a taxi, but he did need to know if she could get home safely.
Boulder Police Department officers have a responsibility to assess an intoxicated person’s level of incapacitation. If the officer determines that a person is a danger to themselves or others, the officer will take that person into protective custody.
According to state law, a police officer may transport an individual to a licensed detoxification program under involuntary emergency commitment if the officer personally observes behavior indicating that the person is a danger to themself or others due to their level of intoxication.
In Boulder County, this involuntary commitment is known as an ARC hold, indicating both the commitment location (the Addiction Recovery Center, or ARC) and the person’s commitment status (hold).
‘A safe place to sober up’
An officer’s first step when encountering someone in need of protective custody is to determine whether the person needs medical assistance, said Boulder Police Department spokesperson Shannon Cordingly.
“If appropriate, (we) request an ambulance response for medical treatment or medical clearance at a designated medical facility,” Cordingly said.
Once the person is out of medical danger, they can expect a somewhat disconcerting ride to the Addiction Recovery Center.
Despite the non-criminal nature of an ARC hold, intoxicated individuals are handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car “to ensure the safety of the officer and the individual,” Cordingly said.
As the squad car approaches the admissions entrance, the intoxicated person may glimpse the center’s neighbor, the Boulder County Jail, out the driver’s side window.
However, the situation improves when the car stops. The officer removes the person’s handcuffs, tells them to cooperate with the Addiction Recovery Center (ARC) staff and takes them inside the 8-year-old center.
A large intake area features three intake stations and an area for the officer to fill out paperwork while the person is being admitted.
“(The officers) are still kind of keeping an eye on what’s happening,” said Ann Noonan, the program development director of substance abuse and mental health at Mental Health Partners.
If the person becomes angry, aggressive or noncooperative, the officer will walk over and remind them to cooperate with the center’s staff.
If the person becomes “aggressive, abusive or assaultive,” Noonan said, the officer will to take them to the jail instead of leaving them at the center.
Staff start by doing a breathalyzer test to get a sense of the person’s blood alcohol level at admission.
“Some people’s livers are really super livers, and they come down pretty quickly,” Noonan said. “But the average is about 0.02 an hour. So we can give an estimate of how long we think they need to be there pretty early on.”
The hand-off process can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, Noonan said, depending on how capable the person is of understanding where they are and why they’re there.
Detox services are billed on a sliding scale, ranging from $60 to $300 a day based on the person’s income and other factors.
Patients are released when they are “sober and stable,” Noonan said, which means they have a blood alcohol level of zero and are stable both physical and psychologically.
Once that happens, the person fills out a bit more paperwork and is free to go.
A 40-year partnership
The Addiction Recovery Center at 3180 Airport Road, also known as ARC Valmont due to its proximity to Valmont Road, is the only non-medical detoxification facility in Boulder.
After years of planning, the Boulder County Public Health Department relinquished control of the center in January 2015 to the nonprofit Mental Health Partners.
Noonan was the center’s director before the hand-off, and has worked in Boulder addiction recovery for over 17 years.
All 13 police departments in Boulder County transport people to the 20-bed detox center, but Noonan said the Boulder Police Department is “one of our primary customers, I suppose you would say.”
“We work well with them—hand in glove,” Noonan said. “We’ve been partners for 40 years, and we rely on them for emergency response when things aren’t going well at the site.”
ARC holds by the numbers
On any given Saturday, the Boulder Police Department transports an average of six people to the Addiction Recovery Center.
ARC holds themselves aren’t crimes, but police occasionally cite people for crimes associated with the hold, like driving under the influence, possession/consumption of alcohol or underage possession.
Noonan said that approximately 65 percent of the center’s detox clients are under the influence of alcohol only. Around 20 to 25 percent of clients have taken a combination of substances, but one of them was usually alcohol.
About 10 percent of clients use opiates or methamphetamines alone, Noone said, and the numbers are rising.
“We have a needle exchange program at the Valmont site,” Noonan said, “and definitely we’re seeing a lot more folks reporting that they’re using heroin as their primary drug of injection. The ages of those clients have skewed down into their early to mid 20s.”
The Boulder Community Hospital is the most common pickup location for transport to the Addiction Recovery Center.
This is due in part to Boulder Police Department procedures, but in other cases people are transported to the emergency room without police involvement and are treated, but are still too intoxicated to be released without visiting a detox facility, Noonan said.
Most other common pickup sites are centered around downtown Boulder and University Hill, where there are not only a large number of bars, but a large number of University of Colorado Boulder students.
The center typically sees its largest influx of students “when the freshmen show up for freshman orientation all the way through football season,” Noonan said.
‘Detox is really a harm-reduction model’
“Detox is really to keep people from dying on the streets from being unable to care for themselves due to their intoxication,” Noonan said.
All but two of the 30 busiest months for ARC holds since Jan. 2008 occur in October through April, according to Boulder Police Department data, and Noonan believes Boulder’s population of unhoused individuals is a contributing factor.
“In the winter time, if somebody is intoxicated and (police) would otherwise say, ‘Okay, you’re in your campground and you’re fine,’ they’re gonna bring them in,” Noonan said.
In fact, the Boulder Police Department’s fifth most common ARC hold pickup location is near the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, which offers only overnight shelter during the coldest months, October through April.
Noonan said that although the unhoused may have a higher rate of alcoholism than Boulder’s population overall, she doesn’t think the difference is dramatic.
“People are probably less likely to be brought in by the police if they have housing,” Noonan said, “just because you can drink and pass out on your couch and you’re not going to come in to anybody’s radar.”
What Noonan hopes people realize about the Addiction Recovery Center is that it’s a resource for anybody living in Boulder County, not just people who are brought in by police.
“You don’t have to go out of the county to go to a 30-day treatment program to have good recovery,” Noonan said. “The ARC program is a wonderful front door for that.”
In addition to emergency detox services, the center gives every detox client a referral for ongoing care. Anyone experiencing detox symptoms may stay at the center for additional monitoring, and a four- to six-week, live-in treatment program is available for people recovering from substance abuse or dependence.
The live-in program is also billed on a sliding scale and ranges from $20 to $100 a day, but Medicaid will not pay for it.
Unfortunately, the 22-year-old woman who surprised Officer Heaton didn’t seem to realize how welcoming the Addiction Recovery Center would be.
After the officers cuffed the 22-year-old for transport, she kicked Heaton in the upper thigh, earning herself a one-way trip to the Addiction Recovery Center’s neighbor, the Boulder County Jail.