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Mass Innovations, from The Beacon, June 2015
A new approach to drug policing developed by Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello has emerged as a potential model for helping drug addicts receive treatment.
Addicts who turn in their drugs, needles and other paraphernalia and ask for help will not be arrested. Instead, they will be paired with volunteers, known as “angels,” who will take them to a local emergency room and help them enroll in a treatment program.
The plan emerged following a May 2 City Council meeting, after the opioid-related deaths of four residents in a two-month period. During that time, many overdose victims were treated with naloxone, a drug (known by the brand name Narcan) that reverses overdoses.
Police worked with the city’s health department and the nonprofit Healthy Gloucester Collaborative in structuring the program. Campanello cited a series of common-sense precepts that guide the policy, such as urging residents to report suspicious activity and seeking to aggressively prosecute dealers.
Once the addict has been enrolled in a recovery program, the volunteer angel continues to spend time with the person, providing companionship and making sure that the person’s needs are being met.
“The angel program is a very non-invasive role, in which a person can help,” Campanello said. “It’s not made out to be over-complicated.”
Campanello explained the program in a May 4 Facebook post, which has received 4,000 comments – overwhelmingly positive – and has been shared 30,000 times. By the third week of May, between 40 and 50 people had signed up to serve as angels, with many more expressing interest in the program, according to Campanello.
Police intend to track the program’s effectiveness, he added. One objective already has been met.
“The main goal for us was to raise awareness in our own community,” Campanello said. “And we have gone beyond that. Regardless whether 100 addicts walk in the door a day or not, I feel, and I think the community feels, that we have raised the national awareness of this issue.”
Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett has raised concerns about the program, saying the chief does not have the authority to promise those in possession of drugs that they won’t face charges or prosecution.
Campanello responded at a May 27 press conference that his program, which was due to take effect on June 1, is based on the notion of police discretion. If an addict is not arrested in the first place, there would be no charges.
“Gloucester is changing the conversation,” Campanello said in a prepared statement. “Drug addiction is a disease, and drug addicts need help … The stigma associated with heroin and opiate addiction is over. Police officers are here to help you, not judge you.”
Campanello’s program has been endorsed by the city’s mayor, a number of state lawmakers, and two police chief associations. The chief was part of a delegation that traveled to Washington in mid-May to meet with Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and Congressman Seth Moulton. The aim is to build support for more federal funding for curbing opioid abuse.
Joanne Peterson, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Learn to Cope, praised Gloucester’s strategy of matching up volunteers with addicts. One concern, however, is the limited number of beds available for recovering addicts.
“State-run facilities are very good, but sometimes they’re all full,” Peterson said.
For those without insurance, treatment can cost up to $30,000 a month, according to Peterson.
Attleboro and Plymouth are among other communities that have developed non-traditional approaches to dealing with opioid abuse.
In Attleboro, plainclothes officers focus on what Police Chief Kyle Heagney describes as “problem-oriented” policing. Rather than pursuing all opioid abusers equally, police focus on those who require the most police resources.
Police visit people in jail as well as those who are free, with the message that they want to help them. According to Heagney, some users have moved out of Attleboro, but the majority are receptive to getting help.
“We tell them this isn’t a law enforcement visit. It’s a social visit,” Heagney said.
Plymouth has launched a task force that includes local officials as well as legislators, the district attorney’s office, and nonprofits. Over the past six months, plainclothes police in Plymouth have recorded more than 200 drug-related arrests, according to the Boston Globe.
In May, the Massachusetts Health Council released “Local Approaches to the Opioid Overdose Epidemic: How Communities Are Responding Today.” The report can be downloaded at www.mahealthcouncil.org.
For more information, contact Leonard Campanello at (978) 281-9775.