Budva, Montenegro Photo by Ender Vatan
Budva, Montenegro Photo by Ender Vatan
Budva, Montenegro Photo by Ender Vatan
March 2014
Drug Addicts: Saving Their Lives While Interrogating Them

This story focuses on the connection between drugs and crime. In February, 2014, the Niksic-based NGO “Preporod”, an NGO dedicated to the education and rehabilitation of drug addicts, conducted a series of three training seminars for 45 property crime inspectors in three towns: Bijelo Polje, Budva, and Podgorica. The aim of the seminars was to train police officers in how to recognize and deal with the symptoms of drug abuse during the questioning process, with a view to recommending drug treatment and rehabilitation. Almost 80% of all property crime in Montenegro – auto theft, burglaries, muggings, and so on – is committed by drug addicts to get cash for drugs. The seminars were supported by a grant from the East-West Management Institute (EWMI), under its Criminal Justice Civil Society Program funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).

At the beginning of the trainings, the police inspectors agreed with the NGO trainers that prison was no place for these people: most not only fell deeper into addiction in prison but also went on to reoffend once released. “It’s a big problem for you, because you deal with property crime and you are seeing the same offenders over and over again,” said Jovan Bulajic, Executive Director of the NGO.

Jovan suggested that the technique they were teaching – motivational interviewing – could be a useful tool for inspectors to use during the questioning of drug-addicted suspects, because the technique, relying on a non-judgmental, non-confrontational and non-adversarial approach, is extraordinarily successful in getting suspects to admit they have a problem. Once the problem is admitted, the police can suggest alternative ways to help the drug addict, such as drug rehabilitation and treatment.  

Many police officers were themselves ambivalent about the training and the technique. One said, "My job is not to get the perpetrator into treatment, my job is to lock him up! We investigate crime, that's what we do. I am not there to hold anyone's hand." Many of his colleagues agreed with this statement. Jovan was quick to reassure them: "Let me state once again that we are not suggesting that you change the way you investigate crime – that is not OUR job either. But might I suggest that if you are seeing the same people turn up in your interview rooms again and again, does it not make sense to at least try an alternative approach?" The police officers agreed, but remained outwardly sceptical.

The pyschologist hired by the NGO for part of the training gave a detailed presentation on how motivational interviewing works. She led the police officers through the four basic interaction skills required for MI, including the ability to ask open ended questions, the ability to provide affirmations, the capacity for reflective listening, and the ability to periodically provide summary statements to the interviewee. The police officers worked on a series of practical exercises to learn and apply these skills. By the end of the training, something had „clicked“ for the police officers and they were beginning to be enthusiastic about the method and the ways in which they could use it. 

But the moment that really changed things was when Jovan showed them a video of an interview with a former drug addict, who said that an interview with a police officer was what had saved his life. „That police officer will probably never know this,“ the man said, „But by treating me like a human being, I started to believe that I was still a human being, and I went to get drug treatment. He extended a lifeline to me. He saved my life, actually." Jovan said that there was silence in the room as those words sunk in.

When Jovan himself admitted to the police inspectors that he himself had once been a drug addict, they were shocked and unsettled. The man whose training they had come to respect and learn from had once been the type of person they routinely dismissed as hopeless cases. Jovan's admission further drove home the point that it was possible that in each drug addict lay the potential to become a fully functioning member of society. He also talked frankly about how one sympathethic and skillfull interview by a police officer can make a world of difference for an addict. Not all of them, surely, but some. "If you can save one life," Jovan asked, "Is it not worth it?" Feedback from the police officers showed that they agreed.

As follow up, Preporod developed a draft questioning protocol for property crime investigators to use as part of the suspect questioning process. Developed with the input of police officers from the seminars and through feedback forms and an online survey at the Preporod website, this protocol has been sent to the Police Directorate for comment and/or approval. Furthermore, the NGO is preparing a series of presentations and talks at local high schools in three towns, aimed at educating high school students about the dangers of drug abuse.

Preporod NGO started seeing results from the training almost immediately. Inspectors started referring drug users they arrested to Preporod for consultations and treatment, which could be used by their lawyers at sentencing as a way of deferring or lessening prison sentences. At the time of writing, two months following the seminars, two addicts referred by the police have voluntarily admitted themselves to the Preporod rehabilitation center for treatment. It is possible that these two lives have been saved, therefore, which is a huge success for the project.