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Story highlights

Police chief says putting bandage on "something that's as bad as a bullet hole" won't work

City defends releasing photos of two adults passed out in front seat of car with a child in back

CNN —  

The unconscious man and woman in the photograph distributed by an Ohio police department as part of a heroin-awareness initiative “almost definitely” would have died had police not intervened, East Liverpool service safety director Brian Allen said.

The photo shows the woman and man passed out, allegedly from an overdose of the powerful narcotic, while a 4-year-old boy in the back of the vehicle, still strapped in his car seat, looks out the window.

The pair were driving erratically on September 7 and had stopped behind a school bus, Allen said Monday, explaining the photo’s origin. A police officer en route to work stopped behind the car, and when the bus pulled away, Allen said, the driver of the car, James Acord, drove slowly for a short distance before coming to a stop in the road on a steep hill.

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The officer got out of his car to check on the vehicle, he said.

“He actually put the (suspects’) car in park and shut the car off,” Allen said.

What about the child?

An affidavit says Acord’s head was “bobbing back and forth (and) his speech was almost unintelligible.” East Liverpool police officer Kevin Thompson, who conducted the traffic stop, said the driver was trying to tell him that he was transporting his passenger, Rhonda Pasek, to the hospital, when he lost consciousness.

The boy in the back is Pasek’s 4-year-old grandson, according to Dane Walton, administrator for the Columbiana County Juvenile Court. Earlier, police had said he is her son.

The city of East Liverpool, Ohio, says it's trying to warn the public about the dangers of heroin.
East Liverpool Police Department
The city of East Liverpool, Ohio, says it's trying to warn the public about the dangers of heroin.

Paramedics were called and administered Narcan, an opiate reversal agent, to the woman, who was turning blue, the affidavit says.

Before releasing the photo, police administrators discussed their concern for the child, but felt the benefits of using the photo to raise awareness about the perils of heroin outweighed those concerns, East Liverpool Police Chief John Lane said. The whole ordeal will help the child in the long run, he said.

“It’ll get him the help that he needs, get him out of that environment and get him where he needs to be – in a safe environment, in a loving environment,” he told CNN.

Pasek had been granted custody of the boy just six weeks before her arrest, Walton said. The boy’s parents are unable to raise him, he said.

The boy will live with his great-aunt and great-uncle in South Carolina, Walton said.

Debate over the photo

On the East Liverpool city government’s Facebook page, where the image of the unconscious man and woman first appeared, officials acknowledged the touchy nature of publicizing the photo. But given the scourge of heroin use in the area, they felt sensitivity was secondary to raising awareness.

“We are well aware that some may be offended by these images and for that we are truly sorry, but it is time that the non drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis,” the city said in the post.

“The poison known as heroin has taken a strong grip on many communities not just ours. The difference is we are willing to fight this problem until it’s gone and if that means we offend a few people along the way we are prepared to deal with that.”

Police say awareness trumped sensitivity in their decision to release the photos.
East Liverpool Police Department
Police say awareness trumped sensitivity in their decision to release the photos.

On CNN’s Facebook page, much of the chatter over publicizing the picture of the overdosed couple revolved around American drug policy in general. But there was plenty of debate around whether this was a viable tactic in combating the area’s drug problem.

“Stop sharing this! If this is meant to help these people or anyone else, it will not. Drug addictions and mental diseases are not just cured by sharing photos of people at their lows,” Reggie Bell posted. “If this shame is what this news source and that police department think is going to help mental wellness or addiction, they have just proven their ignorance.”

Sam Joseph Benallack, however, felt the East Liverpool police had done something commendable: “These images are necessary to educate people about rampant drug use in the presence of children. These two strung out junkies are a shameless, disrespectful representation of parenthood and should NEVER be allowed to see this child EVER AGAIN!!!”

A call to help your neighbor

According to court documents, Acord pleaded no contest to operating a vehicle while impaired and endangering a child. He was sentenced Thursday to 360 days in jail, had his driver’s license suspended for three years and was fined $475.

Pasek pleaded not guilty Thursday to endangering a child, disorderly conduct and public intoxication. She is being held on a $150,000 bond, CNN affiliate WTOV-TV in Steubenville, Ohio, reported. Allen said she is scheduled to appear in East Liverpool Municipal Court this week.

Allen said his city needs state and federal support in fighting the heroin epidemic, and he also called on East Liverpool’s “non-drug-using public to actually get involved and help their neighbor.”

Lane said he’d like to see more police presence in schools, where young people can be educated about the drug, as well as more treatment facilities, even in jails.

“Putting a Band-Aid on something that’s as bad as a bullet hole’s not going to get it done,” he said.

Startling numbers statewide

Ohio is in the throes of a heroin epidemic, and it’s not just this town of 11,000 on the Pennsylvania border, roughly 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. An hour’s drive away, in Akron, authorities reported 24 heroin overdoses Friday, bringing this year’s total to 112, CNN affiliate WEWS reported.

According to the Ohio Health Department, 1,424 people died of heroin overdoses last year, up from 87 people in 2003 – a more than 1,700% increase in just 12 years.

Heroin isn’t the only culprit, either. Fatal overdoses from another powerful opiate, fentanyl, jumped from four in 2007 to 1,155 last year, the state Health Department reported.

Authorities say drug users are also abusing carfentanil, a sedative for large animals, and Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Kode Sammarco said last month that eight deaths in Cincinnati could be attributed to the most potent opioid on the commercial market. It’s 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

Police suspect the heroin involved in Friday’s Akron overdoses was laced with fentanyl or carfentanil, WEWS reported.

CNN’s Chris Boyette, Alisyn Camerota, Faith Karimi and Nadia Kounang contributed to this report.