TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Heroin overdoses left 93 people dead in Pima County last year, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.
Heather Ruiz, a recovering addict in Tucson, is thankful not to be one of those deaths because she's experienced to much loss already.
"I've lost so many friends to overdosing," she said. "I'm just very fortunate that I'm not in prison or that I didn't overdose."
Ruiz, who said she sought support after relapsing, is recovering at Gospel Rescue Mission while her daughter stays with family. She said graduating from the program was her longest stretch of sobriety in nearly a decade.
Before her first time at the mission, Ruiz said she was arrested and given the choice of treatment instead of jail time. She eagerly accepted the alternative and now she's hoping more people in her situation will have the same option.
Police Chief Chris Magnus said the Tucson Police Department is working on a program that would focus on rehab over arrests. It's still in the works, but the chief has made some other changes as well to TPD.
Officers have been moved to patrol instead of previous specialty assignments. A move that the Tucson Police Officers Association understands as necessary because of budget cuts. TPOA spokesman Sergeant Jason Winsky said the department and the city of Tucson did a great job by balancing the budget, but the specialty assignments should return as the Tucson population and economy grows.
"The community should feel proud about that," he said. "But in terms of anticipating kind of the next crisis...that could happen in our county or our city, we want to be on the cutting edge. We want to be a major city police department that's absolutely ready, trained and available to answer the next call."
The extra officers on patrol have handled plenty of calls, according to stats from TPD. Calls relating to overdoses d ropped from 223 before Magnus' restructuring, to 209 in the three months afterward. Arrests related to drugs in that time span have increased from 1,919 to 2,019.
"We're providing those services and that enforcement in a slightly different way," said Magnus. "We're trying to be proactive in what we do in addressing it through prevention, enforcement, treatment."
Magnus said the restructuring has also allowed him to assign an additional lieutenant, three sergeants and four detectives to the regional Counter Narcotics Alliance. Winsky said any changes made are fine for now, but he's hopeful that specialty assignments will return in 3-5 years because it will help to better prepare Tucson for whatever comes next.
"When or if a crisis like a heroin epidemic comes to Pima County like it has in other communities across the nation, we want to be in a good position to answer that with specialized units if necessary, beyond just the regular patrol capacity," he said.
Magnus said the number of officers should increase as the city grows, but he does not expect the method of policing to return to how it was before making changes this year.
"We are going to be able to bring those numbers back up, but in the meantime, I think we're doing a pretty good job using the resources we have and the results speak for themselves," he said.
The latest numbers from TPD show drug arrests are higher than they've been in at least a year.