Gloucester, Mass., Police Program Provides Treatment For Drug Users
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to Gloucester, Mass., where police are trying out a different way of dealing with drug users. This comes amid a rising number of fatal opioid overdoses. Instead of arresting users, police are helping them get treatment. Since the program went into effect on Monday, four people have come to police asking for help. From member station WBUR, Deborah Becker reports.
DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: With five fatal overdoses since January in this seaside city of about 29,000 people, Gloucester police Chief Leonard Campanello says it's time to admit that the war on drugs has failed.
LEONARD CAMPANELLO: We can take a drug dealer down and three will replace him. And that drug dealer that's taken off the street does not affect the user at all. What we see now with the coming to light of the addiction issue is that we need to be involved on that side of it, on the demand side of it.
BECKER: Under Gloucester's so-called Angel program, someone can go to police asking for addiction treatment. Police would then call an angel. That's a volunteer who waits with that person at the local hospital for what is usually publicly-funded treatment unless there's private insurance.
CAMPANELLO: To do a short intake with the person who comes to the station. We contact an angel. We transport the person to the hospital where they're met by the angel and then they're fast-tracked towards a treatment.
BECKER: When the first person came to police asking for help this week, 57-year-old George Hackford got the call at about 3:30 a.m. He met the 31-year-old man at the hospital and waited with him for about 11 hours.
GEORGE HACKFORD: It's a very sensitive time for them because they've, you know, they've come in. They've decided that they're going to change their lives, and so it's a critical point. So they just wanted somebody to sit with them and chat to them.
BECKER: Although officials say they will not turn anyone away, the program does have some exceptions. It will not accept anyone with an outstanding arrest warrant or anyone with a history of serious drug offenses, like trafficking. Police will allow someone to turn in their drugs without being charged if that person gets treatment. Some prosecutors question whether police can make that promise.
MICHAEL O'KEEFE: Police do not have the authority to confer immunity.
BECKER: Cape Cod District Attorney Michael O'Keefe says agencies besides law enforcement need to step up.
O'KEEFE: This is a hydra-headed monster. The police's role, prosecutor's role, is in interdiction. We certainly have to do something about the demand, and we have to do something to treat those that are already addicted, but that has got to come from a far broader swath of society than police.
BECKER: Some say prosecutors' concerns could deter people from trusting police enough to ask for help. But they also say the program should not be measured by the number of participants. Kathy Day is with Learn To Cope, a support group for loved ones of those addicted.
KATHY DAY: The success in this program will be the conversation it's generated, the language, the use of addiction as a disease. It may be breaking some of the stigma that stops people from getting help.
BECKER: More than 1,000 people died of drug overdoses in Massachusetts last year. Another part of Gloucester's program involves using drug forfeiture money so those without insurance can get the overdose reversal drug Narcan for free from participating pharmacies. Alex Doyle, owner of Conley's Drug Store in Gloucester, feels it's his responsibility to help.
ALEX DOYLE: I would love to never have to dispense this. I wish that we didn't have an opiate problem in this country. This medication is an emergency response tool, and it's a medication that will save a life.
BECKER: Chief Campanello says it's his responsibility to do something about his officers repeatedly arresting the same people for being sick.
CAMPANELLO: We shouldn't really even have to be at this point where the police are involved in this, but we recognize addiction as a disease and so other entities as well should.
BECKER: Campanello has met with state and federal officials about steering more drug forfeiture dollars toward treatment and about expanding his program beyond Gloucester. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston.
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