What makes Marion County thrive? Compassionate justice

By BRANDI PERRY,

The Columbia Police Department has recently started a program that could save lives and reduce drug-related crime. And while the idea behind the Mercy Project was a simple one, even Police Chief Michael Kelly thought it sounded crazy at first.

“If you want to get help, bring your dope, paraphernalia, whatever and come sit it on my desk. There will be no questions, no charges filed and no arrests,” he said. “When you do this, someone with our care team will come meet with you and get the process started to get you in a recovery center. It sounds crazy, but it works.”

He first started the program when he was chief in Covington County.

“We noticed a pattern where some individuals would commit a misdemeanor and go to jail for six or seven days and get out and commit the same crime again. It was usually theft. They weren’t bad people or hardened criminals: They were stealing to support their addiction. We knew we had to do something to curb this trend,” he said.

While reading a magazine, Kelly came across an article about a police department in the Northeast that noticed similar drug related crimes in their area. Because of these trends, they initiated a program that was working to cut down on these crimes.

“It was a program I felt could work for us too so I called that police chief and picked his brain and when I got off the phone, I knew it was something we had to do,” Kelly said. “So we started it in Covington County right away.”

Over the course of two years, the program had more than a dozen graduates. When Columbia hired Kelly as police chief in 2018, Mayor Justin McKenzie was aware of the program. Early talks between the two indicated that this would be a program he would like to see done in Columbia. Addiction is a major problem in Columbia and Marion County so getting the Mercy Project started here was a must for Kelly.             

The Mercy Project team works with several recovery centers throughout Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

“Sometimes the case is so difficult we have to send them out of state to get away from the environment and any of the influence. We have safe locations we can send people from New Orleans to Mobile if we have to,” Kelly said.

The Mercy Project also provides support for the families. While the addict is in a recovery center, the family is also given counseling and assistance in order to recover and heal. Hand in hand, the Mercy Project team members walk with the addicts and families until they reach the end of their long and often painful journey.

Even though the Mercy Project is relatively new to Marion County, there have already been two graduates and another that is a part of a year-long recovery program at a center. 

“We’ve had many more than that that went and dropped out, but we just tell them they weren’t ready,” Kelly said. “The ones that did drop out of a program early now know there’s a way out and that the option is there when they are ready to take it and get their life back. We will be right here waiting.  I believe in a culture of compassion and that’s what we are striving for here and with this program. This isn’t going to be the fix-all, but if we can give a handful of families some hope, we have succeeded.”

Another aspect of the Mercy Project is special training the Columbia Police officers have received.

“We responded to an overdose here in Columbia and had our officers been able to use Narcan, we could have saved this individual’s life,” Kelly said.

Now, thanks to the Mercy Project, each police officer is trained to use it and carries it in their patrol vehicles.

Due to the success of the Mercy Project, other police departments throughout the country have started their own programs, including Cordova, Ala. Columbia police have not only been able to build relationships with that department but have offered training and resources.

Mercy Project Coordinator Danielle Barber has an extremely personal reason for her involvement in the program.

“When it was announced last year that there would be a town hall meeting and its focus was the Mercy Project, my sister and I knew we had to learn more,” Barber said. “Our family lost a wife of 34 years, a mama, and our children their granny from addiction and an overdose.”

Barber’s mother died in December of 2011 as a result of addiction. The impact this program can have on the community is truly endless, she said.

“It’s important for people to know that the resources are available, and they don’t have to do it all on their own,” Barber said. “We use faith-based treatment centers because the truth is and always will be ‘through Christ all things are possible.’ We are available day or night, and we are always willing to help those who will help themselves.”

Standing next to her mother’s wooden grave marker in the shade of a large oak tree, Barber said,  “I’m tired of families having to bury their loved ones and not having anywhere to turn to. Thankfully, because of the Mercy Project and its impact of this community, fewer people’s families will have to.”

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