WESTERLY — Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey said his officers are receiving a growing number of calls reporting drivers who are slumped over the wheels of their cars and appear to be going in and out of consciousness or experiencing medical emergencies.
"Many of these calls start the same way, with someone calling dispatch to report a driver slumped over the wheel," he said.
Separate incidents led to arrests on May 24 and May 31 after two area residents were found in possession of narcotics that tested positive for the presence of fentanyl.
The first was Vanessa Lisi, 22, of Charlestown, who was charged with one count of possession of a narcotic substance after she was reported "passed out" at the wheel of a running car near the Cumberland Farms on Friendship Street. The caller said witnesses tried to wake her, but were unsuccessful.
Officers found Lisi in the parking lot at K&B Kwik Stop across the street. Asked to step out of the car, she was unable to balance herself or stand on her own, the police said.
Lisi admitted "taking something," according to the police report, and officers found syringes and other drug paraphernalia, as well as small plastic bags containing powder that she identified as heroin. Lacey said a field test turned up positive for fentanyl, but not heroin.
Lacey said Westerly Ambulance took her to the hospital for treatment before she was charged.
A week later, the police charged a second driver, Carl J. Whitney, 30, of Westerly, with possession of a controlled substance after he was found passed out at the wheel near the intersection of Granite and Summer streets.
The police said he was unresponsive when officers arrived and found him sitting in the driver's seat with the car in drive and his foot resting on the brake. An officer reached in through an open window to put the car in park and woke Whitney using a sternum rub technique.
In the cupholder of the center console was a white powder that tested positive for the presence of fentanyl. The powder, weighing 1 gram, was sent to the state lab for further testing.
Lacey said this week that the department seeks to balance the needs of people suffering from addiction with the duty to assure community safety. An arrest is not always the best solution, he said.
In Lisi's case, Lacey said, officers had tried to work with her after previous incidents, which did not result in her arrest. However, he said that when there is a threat to others, such a driving under the influence, officers have no choice but to make an arrest.
"We do try and get them on a path to get the proper help, but when they are on town roads or are repeat offenders, we need to consider the impact it has on the general public," Lacey said.