SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
To address soaring opioid overdoses, police officers are trying to tone down the law enforcement to offer recovery help. And in Massachusetts, which has the country's ninth-highest overdose death rate, the approach may be catching on. But convincing drug users to accept help is not easy. From New England Public Radio, Karen Brown reports.
KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: Emily Ligawiec has to sign visitors into her recovery program in a grand Victorian house.
EMILY LIGAWIEC: K-A-R-Y-N?
BROWN: She's been living here since getting out of detox last fall.
LIGAWIEC: We got 24, 48, 72-hour passes every weekend.
BROWN: At 29, she doesn't mind the restrictions. She's grateful she's alive to follow them after a decade of addiction.
LIGAWIEC: I had gone down a pretty dark path at that time.
BROWN: Ligawiec traces her turnaround to a 9-1-1 call last year. High on heroin, she'd stolen her mother's car. And when she returned it a few hours later, Officer Jon Cacela of Ware, Mass., was waiting. In the past, he might have immediately read her her rights.
LIGAWIEC: Because for the longest time, the whole idea was, you know, arrest, arrest.
BROWN: But that's not what happened. He gently tapped on the car window and said he was there to help.
LIGAWIEC: And he wasn't the stereotypical officer who was going to arrest me or get me in trouble.
JON CACELA: We're slowly learning that we can't arrest our way out of this problem.
LIGAWIEC: I sat in my car actually and closed the window on him a couple times. And then I opened it a crack. Like, what do you want? And he stood there patiently. And he said, you know, I'm here to help you. I want to help you. And I would roll up my window and look the other way.
BROWN: Through the glass, Officer Cacela explained he was part of a new partnership between police and public health and asked if he could try her another time.
LIGAWIEC: He came back to my house again and again and again.
BROWN: Cacela is used to rejection. He was the first in his small town's police department to get trained in this approach. The idea is when officers get a drug-related call - could be theft, could be an overdose - they put aside the handcuffs and just offer help. Anything from a warm bed for the night to a ride to detox. At the very least, they'll give out the overdose rescue drug Narcan and talk about how to stay alive.
CACELA: It's kind of weird for a police officer to be talking to somebody - hey. If you're going to use heroin, if you're going to use drugs, use it this way. Make sure you're not alone. Make sure there's Narcan on hand.
BROWN: Weird or not, more than 100 cities in Massachusetts have developed versions of this approach, many with state or federal funding. There are a handful of similar programs in other states. But even as police get used to this non-judgmental role, it's not always an easy sell to drug users.
JEFFREY GOULET: Some people are very open, and they'll talk to you. Other people - nah, get out of here. I don't want the help. You know, stupid cops, get out of here - whatever.
BROWN: Jeffrey Goulet is an officer in South Hadley, Mass.
GOULET: Not everyone's at that point in their life where they want to stop. So that's another thing that we learned, just the way people think as far as the people who are using.
BROWN: Addiction researcher Alexander Walley is evaluating the approach for the Centers for Disease Control. He says it's important not to push treatment too quickly, especially right after an overdose when the brain is in withdrawal.
ALEXANDER WALLEY: To have that revelation - usually it's going to take a little more time and a little more reflection.
BROWN: That can mean weeks or months, if ever, before someone accepts an offer of help.
GOULET: They almost all say yes. But I would say about half of them actually mean it. At the beginning, there was a lot of me chasing people around.
BROWN: Officer Cacela eventually talked Emily Ligawiec into meeting him at a donut shop where he introduced her to a recovery coach named Susan. And they stayed in touch. But a few months later, she overdosed at her father's house. She saved herself by using the Narcan they'd left with her. And that's when she agreed to let them help her get into rehab.
LIGAWIEC: For me, it was like a tornado went through. And all that was left in the center was me and, like, a vast land of ruin, you know? And having Susan and Officer Cacela there - it's life-changing.
CACELA: It can get pretty messy.
LIGAWIEC: Especially with someone like me...
BROWN: Almost a year since the first 9-1-1 call, Ligawiec and Officer Cacela are taking a weekly pottery class together.
CACELA: I don't understand. What was the purpose of this now? - just to get the air bubbles out?
CACELA: Cacela does this on his own time. They sit at neighboring pottery wheels throwing down lumps of wet clay.
LIGAWIEC: Watch out for his glass. It's dangerous (laughter).
CACELA: Way off.
LIGAWIEC: That's OK. Do it again.
BROWN: Not all Cacela's relationships are this close. He says he's reached out to about 60 overdose survivors in his town. Only about half got back to him, and fewer still stay in contact. Researchers say it's hard to quantify the results. They're looking at whether overdose rates are slowing down in towns that do this kind of outreach and, more generally, if relationships are improving between police and drug users. Emily Ligawiec says, if she relapses, she'll call the police herself and start all over again. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown.
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