Jack Whelan was quite chipper for someone about to go to war against Chester’s most violent criminals. Surrounded by generic, government-issue furniture in the Delaware County district attorney’s conference room, Whelan was relaxed and funny as he talked about his four kids, their college tuitions, and why he didn’t run for state attorney general. “I don’t like to travel too far from here,” he said, gesturing around the Media courthouse. “I’m a Delco guy.”
Neither a flashy dresser nor a grandiloquent speaker, Whelan presents himself as a hardworking, crime-fighting civil servant. While he seems allergic to pomposity, Whelan hasn’t hesitated to wield the power of the DA’s office on certain issues.
One of those issues is gun trafficking. On May 3, Whelan and other local officials unleashed Operation Safe Streets, the latest effort to curb gun violence in the city of Chester. The plan brings in Pennsylvania State Police troopers to supplement the city’s anemic police force. Whelan’s office and Delaware County Council paid for the added manpower with $100,000 of non-taxpayer funds. This is the second time Whelan has called in the state troopers, making the surge feel like a Band-Aid. But Whelan hopes it will have lasting consequences.
Whelan also announced a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone illegally possessing guns. That’s Whelan’s latest effort to stop straw purchases made by people with clean records. “We’re trying to make people realize that, if you buy a gun for someone who is a convicted felon, you’re going to do five to 10 years in prison,” Whelan says.
It seems unlikely that people will volunteer information, especially not with the apparently rampant distrust of law enforcement embodied by Black Lives Matter. One tenet of the movement is that DA offices do not properly prosecute police officers who violate people’s civil rights. “If we get a complaint, it is investigated thoroughly, and if police officers violate criminal laws, they will be prosecuted,” Whelan says. “What’s lost is judging what the police officer was reacting to at the time. The hard cases are when there is an interaction on the street and the officer believes his life is in jeopardy.”
Whelan says he holds all elected officials to a high standard because they take an oath to uphold the law. Come January, he may take a new oath of office. He’s running for a soon-to-be vacated judgeship on the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. First elected in 2011, Whelan is in the middle of his second and final term as DA. “There’s no doubt that if it wasn’t for term limits, I’d stay in the DA’s office,” he says. “But I think that my natural progression is to be a judge. It’s how I can help people resolve problems.”
Whelan tried to snag the seat early, cross-filing as a Republican and Democrat in the May election in an attempt to win both parties’ primaries. Had it worked, the November election would’ve been a coronation, not a contest for the career Republican. But Kelly Eckel, a Duane Morris litigator and an Upper Providence resident, held her own against Whelan to win the Democratic primary.
Whenever he exits the DA’s office, one of the highlights of Whelan’s career will be creating the Delaware County Heroin Task Force. Members include law enforcement officials, physicians, addiction specialists, and representatives from community organizations. Whelan assembled the task force in 2012. “We were ahead of our time,” he says. “I never imagined the problem would get this bad. The number of lives affected by opioid abuse and heroin is staggering.”
What was the tipping point that turned a problem into an epidemic? “It’s a combination of factors, including doctors, the medical profession and a tolerance for this to occur without any checks or balances,” he says. “I’m not blaming the doctors, but we as a society have come to utilize [opioids] for things we shouldn’t be using them for—a headache, toothache, tonsillectomies, minor surgery. The stories I hear are incredible. You have a tooth pulled, and you get a 30-day supply of OxyContin or Percocet.”
Pill mill doctors aside, most physicians don’t purposefully get their patients hooked on opioids. Whelan acknowledges that point and the difficulties physicians face in treating pain. “I don’t think that, legislatively, we can dictate to the doctor that you have to cut the patient off after a certain amount of time,” he concedes. “There’s a line where it’s interfering with the doctor-patient relationship.”
Whelan recognizes that the medical community has made strides in addressing the opioid prescription problem. Regional healthcare systems and pharmacies now use Pennsylvania’s online prescription-drug monitoring program to share information about which patients get what medications. As of 2017, Pennsylvania’s emergency-room physicians can dispense only seven days’ worth of opioid medications. Crozer-Keystone, the largest healthcare provider in Delaware County, already had gone a step further and decided that OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and other narcotics wouldn’t be prescribed in its four ERs. The 2016 policy applies to patients complaining of back pain, migraines, dental pain and other noncancerous conditions.
While Whelan feels strongly about preventing opioid addictions, he’s just as passionate about saving people who have segued into heroin. In 2014, Delaware County became the first county in the state to equip its police cars with naloxone, the prescription nasal spray that counteracts heroin overdoses. Whelan was directly involved in lobbying for legislation to make that possible.
Whelan also had to convince Delaware County’s police chiefs to involve their officers in what is largely viewed as a thankless job. He invited the chiefs to a white-tablecloth crab-cake lunch, then gave them his pitch: “We’re going to supply it, replenish the doses, and train your officers. It won’t cost you a dime. I’m taking full responsibility. Anything goes wrong, the buck stops here,” Whelan said. “I gave such an impassioned plea— and the crab cakes helped — that not one of them turned me down that day.”
To date, Delco’s police officers have used naloxone to save more than 580 lives and give those people another chance at recovery. It’s discouraging when they don’t seize that opportunity, Whelan admits, but he’s not going to stop trying to help them.