Falmouth police’s 2½-year-old program for those wanting to recover from substance misuse is exceeding expectations, the chief says.

“It has become more successful than I anticipated,” said Chief John Kilbride said. “We quickly realized this program is really taking off.”

Officer Kathleen Oelschlegel heads Operation PHOENIX at the Falmouth Police Department and works one on one with clients seeking recovery from substance misuse. Rachel Vitello / The Forecaster

The non-punitive community policing program, Operation PHOENIX, pairs Officer Kathleen Oelschlegel, a trained recovery coach, with those seeking help for substance use disorders.

The PHOENIX (Providing Hope and Opportunity through Education Networking and Information eXchange) program was Oelschlegel’s idea and Kilbride and the department have embraced it, he said.

“Overdoses and overdose deaths, unfortunately, aren’t alarming to people because they’re so common,” Kilbride said. “I wanted to do more. I was tired of policy, meetings, committees; I wanted to have someone on the street, knocking on your door and speaking with you.”

There were 636 overdose deaths reported in Maine in 2021, up 23% over 2020, according to the University of Maine and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.


“We’re on the front line and to have Kathy one step behind us ready to move in and help somebody, that’s exciting to me,” Kilbride said. “The officers fairly quickly realized the benefit of this. They saw the success she was having with the follow-ups.”

Operation PHOENIX has directly supported 38 people, Oelschlegel said, the majority of whom are male and suffer from alcohol misuse. Of her 110 clients, 72 are friends and family of those afflicted.

“That difference of 72 gives you an idea of how many people are affected by addiction and how it’s not necessarily just the client,” Oelschlegel said. “Sometimes they’re not ready for services, but the family members are. It’s important to know your resources and how to connect those resources to family members.”

The program, which launched in December 2019, served just 17 people in its first year of operation. COVID hitting early in 2020 impacted the program’s outreach, but Oelschlegel said she was still able to assist clients via phone calls and email.

Her goal is to work as an ally with people pursuing recovery, she said, to build trust and to stem the cycle of substance misuse in Falmouth.

“If (officers) keep going to the same address over and over, we need to tweak how we approach and problem-solve,” Oelschlegel said. “Some of the success stories are gaining a better understanding of what their mental health issues were, what the triggers were for their relapses, and getting those services in place.”


In her sessions with clients, Oelschlegel spends time understanding what their triggers are, what barriers they have faced in recovery and what they want their recovery to look like.

“I try to create a nice atmosphere to put them at ease and create an open-flowing dialogue,” she said. “I’m in uniform and they’re not used to that approach from law enforcement, so this is a really unique approach.”

Building relations is key to her work and what she enjoys most about it, she said.

“As an ally, I strive to provide a safe, informal environment where mutual trust is built,”  Oelschlegel said. “This community policing initiative bases its understanding on the premise that addiction is a complex health condition and not a signal of moral failure.”

She talks to her clients about the “hierarchy of needs.”

“If they don’t have the basic needs, how are they going to transform their lives and look at that pathway to recovery? We also focus on self-esteem, because many of these people have been told all their lives that they won’t amount to anything,” Oelschlegel said.


About half her substance misuse clients also struggle with mental health issues, she said.

Oelschlegel works for the department part-time both as the recovery coach and as an officer. The client base does not require a full-time coach, she said. Some weeks she spends two hours on the program, others she works up to 30 hours.

Soon she will also work closely with the new tri-town mental health liaison for the Falmouth, Yarmouth and Cumberland police departments. The liaison is expected to be hired next month.

Oelschlegel, who has been with the Falmouth Police Department for four years, has completed two recovery-related trainings. Her 16 years in police work have included assignments in patrol, student drug prevention, as a school resource officer and as a detective investigating crimes against children. She also has seven years of civilian service with the FBI.

The Maine Department of Public Safety recently awarded the Falmouth department a $20,000 grant to help pay Oelschlegel’s salary.

“This really helps us and helps Kathy to do more follow-up and spend more time with the clients,” Kilbride said.

Call the Falmouth Police Department at (207) 699-5246 or visit falmouthme.org for more information.

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