Mass Innovations, From The Beacon, March 2020

Five years after it helped change law enforcement’s response to opioid addiction, the city of Gloucester has expanded its services to people struggling with dependency.

The city of 30,000 recently hired a community health navigator to help residents access addiction treatment and other health and social services. Roberto “Tito” Rodriguez, who had already worked with the city’s opioids-related program, became the navigator on Jan. 13.

“I think every police department should have a program like this,” said Gloucester Police Lt. Jeremiah Nicastro. “Every other community has the same issues that Gloucester has. I think Gloucester took a huge role in erasing the stigma around opioid addiction. We’re not willing to hide that there is a problem.”

In 2015, Gloucester attracted national attention for its non-criminalized approach to opioid addiction and its offer to find people treatment without arresting them. Gloucester’s ANGEL program inspired the creation of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI), a national network of more than 400 police departments taking a similar approach.

City officials credit Gloucester’s small, close-knit nature for its willingness to confront the addiction crisis.

“Gloucester is an old port town,” said Police Chief Edward Conley. “It has an island mentality. … Gloucester has a culture of everyone looking out for each other.”

The health navigator program has replaced ANGEL, and broadens city services beyond opioid addiction. Conley, who once ran the police drug unit in Chelsea, said that city had a similar position, and he wanted Gloucester to expand its reach. Nicastro said the navigator offers a more holistic approach than typical police interventions.

“With regular patrol, they’re reactive – they go to a call, they fix the problem, and then they leave,” Nicastro said. “But the fix is often temporary. We take on the role of problem solving.”

As navigator, Rodriguez serves as a civilian member of the police’s Community Impact Unit. Led by Nicastro, the unit includes school resource officers, a part-time social worker, animal control officers, the motorcycle division, and the Kops-n-Kids program, which fosters positive interactions between officers and children.

Though Rodriguez works with police, he set up shop in a nearby commercial building, where he can work with more people in need, unconstrained by the opioid-focused mandate of the ANGEL program.

“We want to work with people, and their issues, before they get on the police’s radar,” Rodriguez said. “On our radar is OK.”

Rodriguez had already spent several years in Gloucester as a care advocate and outreach coordinator employed by PAARI. In long-term recovery himself, Rodriguez has decades of career experience in addiction recovery and law enforcement.

To help residents, Rodriguez works with numerous public and nonprofit agencies. He helps people get detox or medically assisted treatment; develop recovery plans; obtain housing, employment and food assistance; and find parenting support services. Other support might include 12-step programs, church services or yoga.

“With addiction, I really try to meet people where they’re at,” Rodriguez said. “Depending on the pathways, I will support them.”

Opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts have dropped 5% from their 2016 peak, but combatting overdoses remains a struggle for communities. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Gloucester had 59 fatal overdoses from 2014 to 2018, with 17 of those deaths in 2018.

Gloucester and other Essex County departments share a database to alert each other about overdoses and allow for followup.

In Rodriguez’s first six weeks, his unit had 92 contacts with people, about 70% of which involved repeat interactions with 10 individuals. The unit trained five residents on administering the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, and distributed 12 doses.

The unit says it wants to reduce overdose deaths, increase public access to Narcan, strengthen community partnerships and increase awareness around these issues.

Last month, a South Shore police department requested Rodriguez’s job description. “I guess there’s an interest,” he said.

For more information about Gloucester’s program, contact Lt. Jeremiah Nicastro at jnicastro@gloucester-ma.gov.

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