PEKIN — The city’s police department and its officers saved two people from drug overdose deaths in recent months and conceivably more through the department’s Heroin Initiative, a one-of-a-kind drug fighting program.

“There’s no doubt the two were at death’s door” before officers short-circuited the opiate drugs they’d taken with naloxone they now carry as part of the Initiative, said Police Chief John Dossey.

Those were battles won against the rise of heroin in Tazewell County, reflecting a nationwide trend. 

Just as strenuous — and markedly successful in 2016 — are the combined efforts of Tazewell’s police and health communities to quell the scourge of prescription drugs.

Ten people died of heroin-related overdoses in the county last year, two more than in 2015 and twice as many as in 2012.

Yet deaths from prescription drugs, of a wide variety that includes tightly controlled morphine and methadone, dropped to eight, significantly less than in each of the previous two years.

In all, 18 people died last year from drugs they took in Tazewell, including two who were pronounced dead at Peoria hospitals.

That was four fewer than 2015 totals and beneath the county’s latest five-year average of 20.3, a number inflated by a one-year epidemic of 34 prescription-related deaths in 2012.

Last year’s numbers, however, reveal heroin has resumed its place and risen to new heights as Tazewell’s deadliest drug, even as Dossey can point to other numbers that show battles won by Pekin’s Heroin Initiative. 

“Everyone knows about heroin,” Dossey said, but with the multi-pronged Initiative his department launched early last September, “we’re trying to cover all the facets of opiates and (prescription drug) opioids, pain killers.”

The Initiative combines several efforts to educate the public about deadly drugs, curb their supply on the streets and their demand from addicted users, and gives Pekin officers the ability to save lives with naloxone. 

In all, “It’s very impressive,” said Jamie Harwood, Peoria County’s newly elected coroner.

Pekin joined Bartonville last September as the only two area police departments equipped with the fast-acting opiate antidote, which AMT and city Fire Department paramedics also carry.

No other department in central Illinois, however, offers Safe Passages, a program in conjunction with a Springfield-based addiction treatment center.

It promises Pekin residents they will not be arrested if they bring their drugs or paraphernalia, such as syringes, to police headquarters along with their desire to enter the center’s care facility.

Since September, eight people “have put their trust in us,” Dossey said. “Who knows if they might’ve joined the (drug fatalities) list if they hadn’t.”

Also in his headquarters’ lobby is a drop box, in which people can discard prescription drugs they no longer use. “We empty that at least twice a week,” he said.

Another strategy to reduce the supply of potentially deadly pain pills on the streets is one Dossey said came from a department staff meeting last January. Its impact stunned him.

In one prior month, the department took about 70 reports from people claiming their pills had been stolen. Too often, their goal was to use those filed reports to obtain doctors’ prescriptions for unneeded refills, Dossey said.

The department now requires them to bring a statement to their doctors reporting their theft claims. That alerts the doctor to the possibility “that their patient might be an addict” in search of more pills. 

“He’s going to ask some tough questions,” while the patient is alerted to the felony charge awaiting a false theft report, Dossey said.

In the month after the statements became part of the process, pain pill theft reports dropped to two, he said.

Follow Michael Smothers at Twitter.com/msmotherspekin