Kelley Kelley and her husband, Kevin Kelley

Kelley Kelley is coming up on the end of her first term as mayor of Turtle Creek, a borough of about 5,000 residents just east of Pittsburgh.

“It went by so quickly,” she said. Before long, she’ll be running for a second term.

Kelley (whose first and last names are indeed the same) did run a mayoral campaign primarily focused on addiction, and the topic resonated enough with her constituents that she won. It was a position she wasn’t particularly interested in having, and–since she continues to work full-time while squeezing mayoral duties into nights and weekends–it’s certainly cut into her sleep and leisure time. But when the opportunity arose, she felt compelled to step up to the plate.

“Addiction was the reason that I ran,” said Kelley, whose husband Kevin struggled with heroin addiction during their marriage and is now in long-term recovery. “It was a decision to put a face on addiction and recovery.”

On the campaign trail, she said, the response was surprisingly positive. People apparently wanted to talk about these issues. Their families were struggling and they were tired of concealing their problems.

As a result, in 2014, at the age of 39, Kelley took office as the mayor of Turtle Creek, having promised the community that she would do a better job of addressing addiction and its harms.

Then what? What did she do? What did she discover?

Community-Oriented Policing: A Priority from the Start

The Turtle Creek police force is small, just five full-time officers and a handful of part-timers. As mayor, Kelley is the leader of the police department. It’s where she wanted to focus right off the bat.

“When I took office, I said I would consider myself successful if I got just one police officer to see addiction in a different way,” said Kelley. “And we have accomplished that, and I’m really glad.”

The police became involved in her own life when her husband was struggling with addiction. During those encounters, she said that police officers didn’t offer a variety of resources that could have supported her and her husband.

“All they wanted to do was to arrest my husband, and I wanted a better solution than that.”

She said that a police encounter can be a powerful opportunity for families impacted by addiction, but that officers need to be trained to make the most of those opportunities. As mayor, she has emphasized the importance of community-oriented policing, which focuses on trust and mutual respect between police officers and the communities they serve.

“I want police and community members to know each other by name, and I want residents who are not afraid to call the police when they need help,” said Kelley. To improve cooperation between police officers and residents, Kelley leads monthly crime watch meetings, which are open to everyone. This, she said, has helped create a dialogue between police and community members.

And she has seen community members contacting police officers for help, just as she envisioned. “We have had people contact the police whose family member is dealing with addiction and say, ‘Look, I think someone I know is committing these crimes. They have a substance abuse issue; they need help.’ And I’ve had really good feedback from families about how officers have dealt with this.” said Kelley.

Although she assumed some pushback from the police force would be natural, Kelley hasn’t seen any. This could be because so many people are impacted by addiction these days that everyone’s attitudes are evolving.

“Our officers tend to be in their 20s and 30s,” she said. “A lot of them are close to people who have this disease. They get it.”

Turtle Creek’s Police Station

Domestic Violence: Realizing It’s a Problem

When she took office, Kelley thought one of the biggest issues she would be tackling was overdose. What she found was that opioids were less of a problem than domestic violence fueled by alcohol.

“I was really surprised about that,” she said. “I didn’t know how bad it was and I’ve been trying to address it in new ways. My question is always, ‘How can we break this cycle?'”

An extensive body of research shows that alcohol causes intimate partner violence. Much less is known about how to intervene to reduce alcohol-related violence in the home. One complication, said Kelley, is seeing that both members of a couple often struggle with alcohol addiction, not one or the other.

In what seems to be her M.O., Kelley said that one strategy to address domestic violence has simply been to talk about it. She has also made it a priority to share information about local organizations at crime watch meetings, in response to individual requests, and via the police force.

“I refer a lot of people to organizations like the Center for Victims and POWER,” she said.

Finally, she sees a need for self-empowerment among the women in of Turtle Creek.

“So many women don’t feel like they look the way they’re supposed to, or act the way they’re supposed to,” she observed. The solution is more community, confidence, and mutual support. This summer, she hosted self-defense workshops for women and she’s worked hard to link women who have experienced violence with other women who serve as their advocates, accompanying them to court dates and providing connections to community resources.

Fall colors over Turtle Creek | Credit: Brian Turner

Stigma: If You Don’t Reduce It, ‘The Other Stuff Doesn’t Work’

When Kelley ran for mayor, she wanted to start new conversations about addiction. But starting new conversations has its pitfalls: it can lead to gossip, witch hunts, and ultimately deepen stigma instead of removing it. How do you start a conversation and keep it productive?

“I keep a lot of my work as mayor off of social media,” she said. “We have a Facebook page, but it’s not a discussion board. I promote positive community events on our Facebook page and everybody knows that my door is open if they want to talk to me personally about concerns they have in our community.”

She takes the same approach in crime watch meetings. “We talk generally about crimes our in area, but we don’t name names. It’s tempting to want to gossip, but I don’t find it helpful.”

She makes a point to focus on positive stories when possible. “Everybody knows the bad stuff that happens with addiction, but what a lot of people don’t know is the good stuff that comes with recovery. And that’s because nobody talks about it.”

The local media is a challenge, she said. “I hate it. You turn on the news and it’s always the mother who chose drugs over her children. If Kevin [her husband] relapsed tomorrow and stole a bunch of money, they’d be knocking down my door.”

Face-to-face conversations have been the best vehicle for changing views about addiction, she said. As an example, she recalls a community meeting where the discussion centered on whether first responders should reverse overdoses multiple times.

“My husband was at that meeting and I pointed to him and said, ‘So you think a person should only get one shot of Narcan? Do you want to tell Kevin to his face that his life wasn’t worth saving? He overdosed multiple times; do you want to stick with that?’ Putting that face on the issue helps.”

She said that counteracting stigma is a daily grind, but that it’s a necessary condition for improving the health of her community. When stigma prevails, she points out, people do not access the services they need.

“If that stigma keeps existing, all this other stuff is not going to work,” she said flatly. She can refer her constituents to treatment and recovery support until she’s blue in the face, but fear of social judgment keeps people away.