HAGERSTOWN, Md.—Kevin Simmers relished locking up drug users, no matter how little crack they had on them. “If they just had a pipe—fine,” he said. “At the end of the night, I wanted to have an arrest. I wanted a body.”
Decades later, despite his efforts, the opioid epidemic was in full swing in Hagerstown, “a small town with big-city problems” an hour outside Baltimore. In 2013, Simmers received an unusual phone call from his 18-year-old daughter, Brooke, who was typically defensive of her independence: “I need your help, Dad.” Simmers braced himself and met her for breakfast at a Waffle House near the so-called heroin highway, an intersection of interstates that connects major drug markets up and down the East Coast. Brooke told Simmers that she was addicted to opioid pain pills and didn’t know how to stop. Familiar with their street price, Simmers asked how Brooke, with no obvious income, could afford the expensive pills. “She told me she was selling her body,” he recalled.
Simmers sprung into action, and over the next year he helped Brooke into a half-dozen rehabs, but none seemed to work. Eventually, out of options and fearing a fatal overdose, Simmers used his police connections to jail his own daughter. But the disaster that followed made him reconsider not just his decision to lock up Brooke, but also his role as a willing combatant in the decades-long War on Drugs.
“I now think the whole drug war is total bullshit,” he said.
“Drugs are menacing our society,” intoned President Ronald Reagan in a 1986 televised address. “They’re killing our children.” Fresh out of the Air Force, Kevin Simmers was driving a milk truck. Reagan was “an inspiring speaker,” Simmer said, so he decided to apply to become a Hagerstown police officer.
Tall, opinionated, irreverent, and fiercely competitive, Simmers was “larger than life,” said Nick Varner, a Hagerstown police detective who trained under him. His policing philosophy was simple, Varner said: “Lock up the problem.” Sergeant Simmers liked contests: Whoever brings in the most arrests tonight gets free dinner.
In Clear Spring, Maryland, a Hagerstown suburb and a real-life Norman Rockwell painting, Varner shot hoops with Simmers and Brooke. A gifted athlete, “she wiped the floor with both of us,” Varner recalled. Brooke had no problem swimming the formidable Potomac River clear to its West Virginia bank. “Kevin was very strong willed,” Varner said, and “she was a lot like him.” Varner remembered how Brooke once walked into the church where he was a pastor and said, “Do you really think that Jesus could walk on water?”
“If there was a tenth gear, she was in it,” said Brooke’s mother, Angie von Gersdorff. “She needed that extra adrenaline rush.” Von Gersdorff and Simmers split up when Brooke was a baby. Within a few years, they both remarried. Von Gersdorff said Brooke’s antics overlaid a darker struggle already underway. “She began to fester in puberty,” she said.
Brooke was given to angry outbursts that worsened as high school began. Finally, in a heated argument, she punched her stepmother, Dana Simmers, in the face—hard, leaving bruises. The Simmers and von Gersdorff got together to decide what to do. “She’s going to have to learn a lesson. We’re going to report it,” von Gersdorff remembers the group deciding. “Tough love.” They called the police and Brooke landed in juvenile detention. But von Gersdorff now regrets feeding her daughter to the justice system at such a young age. “I really thought that it was going to help, but it did not. It did the complete and utter opposite,” von Gersdorff told me. “It’s a huge guilt that makes me so angry. I can’t hit something hard enough to get any relief.” In the years after juvenile detention, Brooke starting hanging out with a rougher crowd and eventually got hooked on pills.
After she told Simmers about her addiction, the unsuccessful rehab attempts grinded the family’s patience and finances. Simmers said waiting lists often stymied their attempts to get help—by the time a spot opened up, Brooke was out on the street again. Then, when she was accepted, she did not receive medication-assisted treatment, which much of the medical literature describes as the gold standard of care. Such treatment combines therapy with low-dose opioids like buprenorphine to help control cravings, but it is still often stigmatized as a way of replacing one addiction with another. Brooke’s rehabs embraced a strict prohibition on medication of any kind—one even kicked her out when staff discovered ibuprofen in her luggage. Abstinence-based drug treatment is astonishingly ineffective but deeply entrenched in the United States. Leading public-health organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the World Health Organization all recommend medication-assisted treatment, but only about 12 percent of people with a substance-use disorder receive specialty treatment.
After another relapse, Brooke was living in a Motel 6 next to the highway. Afraid for her life, the family turned to the institution they knew best: law enforcement. Simmers called friends in the Hagerstown police who had previously turned a blind eye to Brooke’s drug use—“professional courtesy,” Simmers called it— and asked them to throw the book at her. She was arrested and sentenced to four months in jail.
Brooke arrived at the Washington County Detention Center with some fanfare. “It was like fresh meat,” said Amanda West, her cell mate. “You could just hear whispers down the hallway, ‘It’s Brooke Simmers, it’s Brooke Simmers, it’s Brooke Simmers!’” Having arrested some of the inmates himself, Sergeant Simmers was well known inside the detention center.
Even when Brooke was dope sick, she kept the pod entertained. Like her dad with his officers, she goaded inmates into contests: Who could brush their teeth the fastest? Who could design the best jailhouse outfit? Brooke tie-dyed an oversized -shirt with Hawaiian Punch and crushed-up colored pencils and declared herself the winner.
When West was suffering severe heroin withdrawal, Brooke “put socks on my hands so I wouldn’t scratch my face,” she recalled. West remembered Brooke returning to the cellblock in tears after visits from her father, crushed by guilt. “She wanted her dad to be proud of her,” West told me, “but she felt like he could not separate her from his law-enforcement life. It was insulting to him that he had a child that was committing the same sins of the people that he had incarcerated.”
West had been sober for about a year when we met. She told me that she had also tried to convince her parents—a banker and a Christian schoolteacher—that her addiction was not meant to hurt them. As if to prove her point, she rolled up the sleeves of her cardigan to reveal thick, glassy scars blanketing her forearms. She explained that in a fit of desperation she’d used “krokodil,” a synthetic heroin substitute from Russia made with a toxic swirl of chemicals and gasoline. Her skin had bubbled, swollen, and turned black. Now it looked like skin grafts after a severe burn. “I almost lost both my arms,” she said. “Who wants to do this?”
Brooke was released on April 4, 2015. Redoubling her commitment to sobriety, she attended abstinence-based Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Overdose deaths exceeded 72,000 in 2017, but fewer than half of drug-treatment programs provide low-dose opioids to treat cravings, though they can cut the risk of an overdose death in half. After being clean for four months in jail, Brooke was in an exceptionally precarious position on the outside. The risk of an overdose death is 12.7 times higher in the two weeks after being released from jail, a 2007 study found.
Simmers feared Brooke would relapse, so at night he parked his police cruiser close behind her car to prevent her from sneaking out of the house.
Just nine days after Brooke’s release, Simmers awoke to tire tracks through the front yard—Brooke had apparently maneuvered around his car. Hours later, Dana Simmers received a call from Brooke’s friend Alison Shumaker, who told her she had spoken to Brooke in the predawn hours. Shumaker, who was trying to quit heroin herself, said that Brooke had relapsed and, full of self-loathing, had told her, “I’m a piece of shit.” In a recent interview, Shumaker recalled that Brooke feared her father’s response, and told Shumaker, “I can’t go home. He’s going to be so disappointed.” Eventually, the line went silent.
“She might have died talking on the phone with me,” Shumaker said. The possibility that faster action may have saved Brooke’s life haunts Shumaker, but her inaction is not unique. Research suggests that after decades of Simmers-style drug policing, the most important reason drug users don’t seek timely medical help is the fear of prosecution.
The next day, a search party finally found Brooke’s red Volkswagen Beetle in a church parking lot. Detective Varner arrived on the scene to find Brooke lying in her own vomit in the back seat, a sweatshirt rolled up like a pillow under her head and a basketball near her feet. Parked beneath a hoop where she had once practiced layups, Brooke died of a heroin overdose on April 14, 2015.
More than three years later, the pain has hardly abated. Carefully out of sight behind the Christmas decorations in the basement, Dana Simmers, Brooke’s stepmother, preserves clothing that still carries Brooke’s scent. In a glass case in her living room, von Gersdorff keeps a lock of her daughter’s hair she snipped off at the funeral home.
In his home office, lined with old badges and a black-and-white police-recruit photo, Simmers is still mulling over what went wrong. After decades of locking up low-level drug dealers and users, including his own daughter, Simmers said he realized that “we’ve tried to incarcerate our way out of a lot of problems in this country and it has not worked.”
“Maybe if she wouldn't have went away for that four months, she wouldn’t have overdosed and died,” he said. Though he can’t point to a single cause, he said he feels “guilty everyday.” Simmers told me that Brooke’s death, and the powerlessness he felt while repeatedly failing to find effective drug treatment for her, fundamentally changed his mind.
“Twenty years ago, most people thought arrest and incarceration were the answer to this drug war,” he said. “I think most people were wrong—I think I was wrong.” Now Simmers says he’d rather see the roughly $47,000 a year it takes to jail drug offenders spent on jobs programs instead. He’d like to see 24-hour, on-demand treatment available to anyone who wants it—no waiting lists. The former narcotics officer is even open to the idea of decriminalizing heroin.
Simmers also now detects a racial injustice in the harsh punishment he once meted out. His own crack-era targets mostly went unnoticed, but the details of Brooke’s life and death were covered heavily in the local media and elicited a wave of sympathy from police officers and elected officials. “This problem was happening in the African American community for years and we did nothing about it,” Simmers said. But Brooke was “a pretty white girl who lives in the suburbs, lives in middle-class America. I think that could be why people were more attracted to the story.”
Simmers said that when Brooke was sober, she told him that she hoped to open a sober-living house for women. They struck a deal: One year sober, and he’d help her make it a reality. She overdosed before she made it to a year, but Simmers decided to go ahead with the plan anyway. Soon after her death, he and Dana began fund-raising, and a friend donated a leafy patch of land outside Hagerstown. Volunteer construction crews are at work on a 16-bed living facility and treatment center.
On a brisk morning last May, about 100 supporters—grieving parents, people recovering from addiction, police officers—gathered for the ground-breaking ceremony. “I don’t think anybody wants to build a house in memory of their daughter,” Simmers told the crowd, “but this was her dream and we’re going to do our best to fulfill her dream.” Brooke’s House is slated to open early next year.
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