Amid Heroin Controversy, Northfield Police Chief Takes Leave


Heroin ‘epidemic’ in Northfield turns out to be nothing of the sort.

After a much-publicized press conference announcing a heroin “epidemic” among area high schoolers, Northfield’s police chief, Gary Smith, has taken an indefinite leave of absence, according to an internal police department memo published by the blog Locally Grown. While no reason for the leave was given, it’s likely tied to recent news coverage of rampant heroin use by teenagers in the area.

At the July 3 press conference, Smith shocked the town by announcing that as many as 250 students at Northfield High were involved with heroin. The Star Tribune reported that teenagers roamed dorms on Northfield’s two college campuses “taking anything that isn’t nailed down.” It also reported that “[p]acks of kids are wandering through hospitals in Rochester and other communities stealing narcotics or asking patients for drugs such as oxycodone or OxyContin.” As many as 150 youth were “hooked on the drug,” it reported.

Star Tribune columnist Katherine Kersten picked up the report, repeating terms like “epidemic” and claims of $800-a-day heroin habits. She called the turn of events “a perfect storm”: society’s “philosophy of hedonism and radical individualism” coming together with “affluence, busy parents who sometimes don’t monitor behavior and proximity to a big city with heroin pushers eager to expand their territory.”

Then, Minnesota Public Radio ran a different kind of story: It quoted school superintendent Chris Richardson who says 15 — not 150 — students at the high school got treatment for heroin addiction. The Star Tribune, two weeks after the press conference, sent writer Kevin Duchschere to Northfield to report. His findings contradicted some of the facts reported in the paper’s original story — and some of Smith’s claims. He found:

• School authorities have dismissed the notion of a heroin ring at the high school.

• No heroin-possession indictments have been returned.

• Area hospitals report no evidence of young con artists at work.

• The record is mixed on thefts at local colleges, with an increase at Carleton but no such hike at St. Olaf.

The internal memo offers no explanation for Smith’s indefinite leave. It states that officer Roger Schroeder has been promoted to Captain and “will handle day to day operations of the department.”