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Day Four: Empathy for the addicted

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By Carmen Gentile | Photographs by Justin Merriman for American Reportage


CINCINNATI, Ohio — The police chief of Newtown, a small community just outside Cincinnati with an apple-pie-cooling-on-the-windowsill feel, is by any definition a colorful guy. 

Tom Synan is a Marine veteran-turned-top cop whose take on addiction has garnered him international attention. He’s seen firsthand what prescription and illegal drugs did to his town and the rest of a region in which thousands of lives have been lost to overdoses in recent years. 

He speaks of those lives lost to drugs with genuine sorrow and heartfelt concern for their loved ones left behind.

In addition to his novel approach to tackling the drug epidemic, Tom’s known for his love of  Batman and his gleaming, white Harley, replete with a thunderous stereo system. 

We met with Tom, 53, at the Newtown police station to talk about how his approach to tackling drug addiction and how showing empathy for those caught in the clutches of addiction can best help the afflicted wrest control of their disease. 

“As law enforcement, we don’t have the resources to deal with these chronic issues,” he notes, referring to the myriad dilemmas that come with addiction, such as homelessness and the employment and loss of loved ones to their disease. “The criminal justice system is not a healthcare system.”

Tom preaches “compassionate policing.” For him, that means the default for law enforcement isn’t to incarcerate those suffering from addiction. Rather, he believes treatment for addiction and continued efforts to rehabilitate the afflicted, will ultimately benefit society as a whole. 

“Criminalizing addiction is what leads to more addiction,” he notes, with a passion for his ethos that is infectious and endearing. 

Tom is the first to admit that some might find his approach both “corny and naive.”

But he also notes that America was founded on similar aspirations regarding life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Carmen Gentile is founder and editor-at-large of Postindustrial. He has worked for some of the world’s leading publications and news outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, CBS News and others. His book, “Blindsided by the Taliban,” documents his life as a war reporter and the aftermath of his brush with death after being shot with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan.

Justin Merriman is a freelance photojournalist who has traveled the world to cover politics, wars, natural disasters, civil unrest as well as covering assignment throughout the United States. His work has appeared in leading national publications and he has received multiple top journalism awards. Justin is a founding member of American Reportage.

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