Patrick Pezzati walks briskly through downtown Turners Falls in western Massachusetts with a hard plastic bottle in one pocket of his shorts and a pair of latex gloves in the other.
He stops to peer down steps leading to a basement. Later, he peers under a chunk of carpet lying outside.
The local record store owner is scouring the back alleys of this picturesque former mill town for used needles.
As the last of the snow melts in New England, an assortment of debris is emerging — including heroin syringes. It’s gotten so bad in this small town that the police chief asked civilians like Pezzati for help.
Now that heroin has gotten cheaper and easier to find in rural towns like this, discarded syringes are turning up everywhere. Chip Dodge, the local police chief, says his small force can’t keep up.
“We’re getting five, six calls a week about needles,” he says.
It’s gotten worse, Dodge says, since Massachusetts legalized possession of hypodermic needles in 2006. That meant less spread of disease through needle-sharing — but more needles around.
To demonstrate, Dodge pulls up last month’s police log on his computer and reads off a list of where syringes have been found: two by a tree in a park, one on a sidewalk, another by an ATM, yet another sticking into a bank of snow.
The final straw was when a 2-year-old boy stepped on a syringe in his back yard and ended up in the hospital. That’s when Dodge posted his request on the department’s Facebook page, asking Turners Falls residents to help pick up — carefully — dirty needles.
“It’s a very strange request, I will admit,” the police chief says. “It’s sort of like asking somebody to pick up a weapon.”
But he says police are no better at handling needles than anyone else. They use gloves, avoid the pointy end and put them in a strong container.
“I absolutely have faith in the community and I do believe they have the common sense to not injure themselves,” Dodge says.
Public reaction was swift. Residents like Pezzati offered to organize community needle hunts.
“Better I find it than a 6-year-old,” Pezzati says.
But plenty of people have no intention of heeding the chief’s call. Michael Crabtree is collecting bottles and cans behind a dumpster. What will he do if comes across a syringe?
“Call the police and let them deal with it,” he says. “I don’t think I’d even want to touch no freakin’ dirty needle. Could get pricked with the thing and get AIDS, or who knows what.”
Other communities that are struggling with a surge in heroin addiction, including Scott County, Ind., also have volunteers picking up discarded needles.
But in Massachusetts, none of the police departments in neighboring towns have asked for community help. Even among his colleagues, Dodge is seen as a bit of a rogue.
Gina McNeely, public health director for Turners Falls, says the chief’s intentions are good — but she doesn’t like civilians taking on such a delicate task.
“People, they get nervous, they get scared,” McNeely says. “They may or may not drop it. It may stick in their foot.”
Chief Dodge says anyone squeamish around needles is still welcome to dial 911. His officers may just be busy — responding to, among other things, several heroin overdoses a month. And that’s an even harder problem than needle disposal.