CLEVELAND—A safety director in a city that released photos of a 4-year-old boy in a vehicle with two adults slumped over after overdosing on heroin and fentanyl said Friday he and others wanted to send a message to addicts they should find safe places for their children when using debilitating drugs.
The photos were taken Wednesday in East Liverpool, a city of about 11,000 residents along the Ohio River, and were posted to the police department’s Facebook page Thursday.
Safety Director Brian Allen said city officials initially struggled with the decision to make the photos public but he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
“Sometimes the truth is a gruesome thing,” Allen said. “And that picture is the truth of what my officers deal with every single day.”
The adults are the boy’s grandmother and her boyfriend. The 50-year-old grandmother, Rhonda Pasek, was being held on a child endangerment charge; she couldn’t be reached for comment in jail and didn’t have a lawyer. The 47-year-old boyfriend, James Acord, pleaded guilty to child endangerment and operating a vehicle while intoxicated and was sentenced to 360 days in jail. The Columbiana County children’s services agency took custody of the boy.
An East Liverpool police officer was driving to work when the couple stopped behind a school bus. When the bus drove off, the officer saw the couple’s car drifting before it came to a stop, police said.
Officers photographed the couple and the vehicle for evidence, Allen said, and released the photos after the man’s guilty pleas ended his criminal case. The adults were unconscious by the time an ambulance crew arrived and likely would have died if they hadn’t received an opiate antidote, he said.
Police said they found evidence the adults had used a mixture of heroin and fentanyl.
Posting the photos could be seen as a type of punishment but also as a public relations tool to try to stop people from becoming addicted in the first place, said Wes Oliver, director of the Criminal Justice Program at Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh. He likened it to successful anti-smoking campaigns in recent years using photos showing the graphic physical effects of tobacco use.
“I like the approach about trying to get the public from ever starting using these drugs rather than thinking about how to lock them up once they’ve started,” he said.
East Liverpool has been inundated by the heroin epidemic the last three or four years, Allen said. The city sits at a crossroads between Cleveland and Pittsburgh that draws sellers and users alike, he added.
State and federal help is needed to provide treatment options while police attempt to control the problem from the supply side, Allen said. The city plans to engage neighborhood watch groups to report drug dealing and drug use when they see it, he said.