The veteran police chief in a bucolic Ohio village, where the last murder was two decades ago and he can just about count the number of drug cases on both hands, finds himself in the spotlight on the front lines against heroin overdoses in one of the nation's hardest-hit states.
Thomas Synan Jr., of Newtown, with some 2,700 people tucked among suburban cities and townships just east of Cincinnati, has led the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition task force during a stunning spike of overdoses that saw 174 reported in one six-day period last month. He has also publicly challenged Ohio's governor to do more to help an area that's "bleeding profusely."
"We need action, and we need it now," Synan declared at the Hamilton County coroner's office Sept. 6 after the coroner announced lab tests confirmed the extremely powerful animal tranquilizer carfentanil was present in some recent overdose casualties.
The office of John Kasich, the popular second-term Republican governor who ran for president, has responded that he lacks specific authority under Ohio law to declare a "public health emergency," as Synan and others call for. Kasich initiatives have included making it tougher for drug abusers to obtain prescription painkillers, expanding access to the overdose antidote naloxone and promoting discussion about drug dangers in schools and homes.
"The governor is fully committed to working with locals to fight this battle, and that means working together on proven solutions and proven tools," Kasich spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach said. "It also means focusing on tools that actually exist instead of hoping for the equivalent of magic spells that doesn't exist. That's just a distraction that hurts those in need."
In an interview, Synan insisted Kasich can free up state funds for more resources and push through new legislation to help police and to facilitate getting more users into treatment.
"I don't really care what you call it," Synan said. "Just come down here and say we're going to help ... with tangible money and appropriate legislation to get things done."
In an office that includes a Batman painting, his framed Marine discharge and him in a photo with Kasich, Synan, 49, discussed the battle that touched him personally two years with the overdose death of a young man he'd known throughout a police career that began in 1993.
Synan was head of the county police chiefs' association when the heroin coalition was formed last year to respond to the spreading deadly epidemic. Federal statistics ranked Ohio second in overdose deaths in 2014, and the state last month reported another record toll in 2015: 3,050 people. There are 47 local, state and federal agencies working together in the task force.
Investigators had intelligence in July that heroin with carfentanil — federal authorities think the drug that is thousands of times stronger than morphine is being shipped from makers in China to Mexico for trafficking — was going to be hitting the streets in Cincinnati.
It was like waiting for a massive hurricane to strike.
"We put out a public warning ... we anticipated it, and when it happened, we were all like, 'Here it is,' and now let's see how bad it is."
Police on Cincinnati's streets texted Synan with new cases as the number climbed to 40 the first day.
"We kept asking: 'How many dead?' The answer kept coming back: 'Zero ... zero... zero.'"
On the second day, three deaths were reported among 50 overdoses.
A month after the spike began, overdoses are still at 20 to 25 a day in the county, compared with the previous 20 to 25 a week. Synan credits the heroic, tireless work of firefighters and other first responders, who in some cases needed to administer multiple doses of naloxone to save people. Otherwise, a death toll that appears to have been in low double digits, pending lab results, would have been in the hundreds, Synan said.
There is worry about what comes next.
"We've never seen anything like this. This is different from crack; this is not like acid, this is not like marijuana. They (earlier drug sellers) weren't putting in drugs used to sedate people in hospitals like fentanyl; no one ever thought of putting in a drug that can knock out an elephant like carfentanil. This is such a powerful addiction; it physically takes over their body and their thought process. It defies traditional responses."
Synan two years ago wrote a column for The Cincinnati Enquirer after the overdose death of the young village resident who he said cried as police promised they'd help him get treatment if he wanted it.
The next morning, he injected a fatal heroin dose.
"The empathy I give him now is not for the loss of a drug addict, but for the loss of a kid," Synan wrote.
"If it can happen here in quiet Newtown, it can happen anywhere," said Synan, whose forearms are tattooed with the Marine motto "Semper Fi" and with "Sheepdog," for protector. "When you try to protect someone and it doesn't work, there is a helpless feeling."
By Dan Sewell - Associated Press/Sept. 18, 2016
Photo: AP file