A Town Where Police Try To Help, Not Arrest, Heroin Addicts

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This week, Here & Now is producing a series about the prescription opioid and heroin epidemic hitting many parts of the country. Today, host Robin Young talks with the police chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Leonard Campanello, who recently announced a significant policy shift for his department.

This mission statement hangs at the Gloucester Police Department. (Robin Young)
This mission statement sign hangs at the Gloucester Police Department (click to enlarge). (Robin Young)

No longer will Gloucester police arrest heroin or prescription opioid addicts, if they come into the police station looking for help. Instead, they will actively help people into treatment - on the spot.

The response has been staggering. Since the program began, just over three months ago, about 153 people have used it to get into treatment. And not just people from Gloucester - some have journeyed to the seaside town from other parts of the country to seek help.

Interview Highlights

Are you afraid the program will make the community a mecca for drug users?

“From the beginning we were very aware of what we’re undertaking and had hoped on the cavalry coming, so to speak, and it seems to be happening. We’ve signed up quite a few police departments who are engaging in the demand side of the issue from a law enforcement perspective, and they range from right here in Massachusetts, to Pennsylvania and beyond. So no, we don’t worry about becoming a mecca, we want to help as many people as we can and we want to get people engaged in this conversation. We don’t pretend that the Gloucester model will work for every community, but we do know that law enforcement can have an active voice in how we deal with addiction and what we’re finding is that more and more police departments are jumping on board.”

How did you make the shift from a policy of arrest to a policy of amnesty?

“We saw a need here in the community - there was a need and want from the community that didn’t want people with addiction being arrested or incarcerated. We felt as though we could partner with local facilities in order to try to speed up the process of getting people into treatment. It struck us very hard, at the beginning. We got a crash course in the healthcare system in 12 weeks. The notions that came to us were ‘imagine if you had a friend or a relative or a loved one who had cancer, and the only way you could get them help is by arresting them’. It didn’t make sense - it immediately didn’t make sense. And we don’t want to be in the health care business, but if the police department can put 150 people into beds within 24 hours over the course of three months, then anybody should be able to. We’ve drawn a line in the sand and we expect those who are more responsible than law enforcement for this issue to step up."

Every person that comes in is assigned an angel. Explain what that means.

“Angels are very simple, they’re members of the community - they may be in recovery, they may have had loved ones who suffered from addiction and passed away, or they may just be volunteers who want to help. We don’t train them as recovery coaches, we don’t train them as advocates, we know that a person who is suffering from addiction is 10 times more likely to stay and wait for treatment, if they have someone just to talk to and just to be there with them in the moment, than if they didn’t.”

What has the program accomplished so far?

“This job, you tend to bang your head against the wall a lot, and this feels like we’re making some headway. This job shows you a lot of death, in different ways, so you can sometimes get hardened to it. I think that senseless death, tragic death, is a lot more painful to see. Senseless in the means that there is no reason why these people have to die for lack of help. This program is created on the idea that you’re ready for help and that’s when you come in. And we should be able to carry that through, forever. So someone who continuously wants help for their addiction, should never be turned away. It’s the same thing as cancer, if someone chooses not to treat their cancer, that’s one thing. If someone wants help, they’re never ever turned away. So we need to start treating it like that, this is a lifelong illness that only goes into remission, it’s never cured. The sooner we start viewing that in those terms, the more economical this so-called war on drugs gets, the less people that are incarcerated for no other reason than possessing an illegal substance, and we start saving money actually.”

What do you have to say to critics of the program?

“I’d say, come follow me around for a day and look into the faces of the addicted people themselves and their loved ones, and put yourself in their shoes. Because I am under no illusions that it could be a loved one of mine, and neither should anybody else be. It’s not a question of economic status, it’s not a question of two parent or one parent household, and it’s not a question of race or ethnicity. It crosses every socioeconomic boundary we know of. These are people that have a disease, and however they got there is not for us in law enforcement to judge, it's only our responsibility to help if we have the means to do so, and we do.”


This segment aired on September 10, 2015.


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