Some law-enforcement agencies are getting sassy in their social-media posts about the disease of addiction, a practice they say attracts a larger audience for their work against drugs and other ills. But health advocates say the practice is dehumanizing, discourages people with substance-use disorders from seeking help, and perpetuates stigma that discourages them from getting treatment, Bobbie Curd reports for the Advocate-Messenger in Danville, Ky.

Curd details several cases. One involved an intoxicated man who reported a stolen laptop computer, and told the responding officer that he wanted to go to jail, eventually saying he wanted to be with his girlfriend, who was serving a five-month term. Then he pulled out a spoon, syringe and a large amount of suspected methamphetamine, and was arrested.

Screenshot of Facebook post; for a larger version, click on it.
The Garrard County Police Department posted a release on its Facebook page about the incident Jan. 6 with the headline "True Love" and a subhead "BUT WAIT, IT GETS BETTER," above the drug revelation.

"Hashtags on the post included “#LoveWins, #IsThisMTVCribs, #LemmeShowYouAround, #LoveANDmethAreInTheAir, #WhereCupidAt,” and “#CheckOutMyStash,” among others," Curd writes. After her story appeared, the hashtags were removed.

Earlier, Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson told Curd that a "younger moderator" created the tags, which mimicked what other agencies had done. He said his headline and subhead did not editorialize, and “bringing publicity to what the officers are doing is helpful. It’s not intended to poke fun.”

Curd reported, "Out of the 572 comments on the post, almost all are from people making jokes. The post has been shared 1,300 times. Only a handful of comments question the wording of the post."

Some other police agencies in the area have used similar catchy hashtags, perhaps getting the idea from the Louisville Metro Police Department. A department spokesman, told Curd that the department's more comedic approach helped increased its Facebook followers from 5,000 in 2016 to 130,000 today, a "valuable law enforcement asset" that has spurred apprehension of suspects and enabled police to share knowledge of the law with a wider audience.

But Washington also told Curd that even with “all the fun,” the department never posts mugshots, unless they have an active warrant for someone and want the public’s help; tries not to lose sight that the person involved is a family member; and strives not poke fun at addiction or use slurs like "crackhead" or "doper."

After the Garrard County post went up, the Garrard Central Record, the local weekly newspaper, printed a story that Thursday with the headline, "Might as Well Face It, He's Addicted to Love."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, told Curd, “This is one reason I did a Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery workshop in November for journalists." One session explained why it is important to not use stigmatizing language when reporting on addiction.

Cross, who is also the editor and publisher of The Rural Blog, said reporters are largely uncomfortable with doing enterprise reporting on the subject and “often default to the law-enforcement narrative. When the law enforcement narrative turns into mocking people with the disease, that is an inappropriate narrative to adopt.”

Several people working against addiction agreed. Robert Fox, who is in recovery from his addiction and is the director of community outreach at the Shepherd's House, an outpatient treatment center in Danville, told Curd that such posts create a feeling of "It's us against the world" and "make people like me seem less-than, to keep us in our place. … We go out every day and work with employers to get them to realize this is a disease, and that these are normal people."

Tanith Wilson, vice president of Shepherd's House and sober 13 years, called the trend "sad and heartbreaking." She said it can create a pack mentality online, with “heinous comments like ‘lock them up forever,’ or ‘just let them die.’ I’m very comfortable sharing my past, especially due to what I’m doing now, but it still makes me feel less than human when I read those comments. It’s a terrible, awful feeling.”

Kathy Miles, coordinator for the Boyle County Agency for Substance Abuse Police, told Curd that people who struggle with addiction shouldn’t have their “whole persona encapsulated in their addiction like this, or made light of,” partly because it discourages them from getting treatment. “Law enforcement and the media have incredible power to help people get treatment,” she said.

Don Helme, who is running a health-communication campaign in an $87 million grant-funded project at the University of Kentucky to reduce drug overdoses in Boyle and 15 other counties, told Curd, “It has a chilling effect on people seeking help. They become ashamed, fearful and angry. This sort of stigma in these hashtags — it’s heartbreaking.”