With fishing boats dotting the harbor and streets lined with picturesque wood paneled homes, Gloucester can seem like an idyllic Massachusetts coastal city. But like much of New England, Gloucester has an opioid problem. In the first four months of 2015, four citizens have died of overdoses from heroin and various prescription drugs.
The deaths spurred a public forum and new action on the part of the Gloucester Police Department. In a Facebook post last month, Police Chief Leonard Campanello announced that the department would start helping addicts instead of arresting them.
"Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc.) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged," Campanello wrote. "Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery."
Gloucester has fewer than 30,000 citizens, but the post was shared more than 32,000 times. The initiative, known as the ANGEL program, launched on June 1. The first patient signed up the next day.
Once a user makes contact with the police, an officer will remain with the person and transport him or her to the Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and stay there until an "angel" from the police department's volunteer list arrives. The user is then handed over to addiction specialists.
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After Campanello announced the program, out of state rehabilitation and detox centers offered up their substance abuse services. The chief says these facilities have even offered scholarships to cover the cost of transport and treatment outside of Massachusetts. But success depends on users actually coming forward to approach the police, and the relationship between the two sides has historically been distrustful.
"Someone has to take the first step, that's all we can do — take the first step towards the building of trust and show that we are good on our word and see addiction as a disease and treat it as such," Campanello told VICE News. "We've come to a consensus as a department that we're not going to arrest our way out of the addiction problem."
'We've come to a consensus as a department that we're not going to arrest our way out of the addiction problem.'
But, as Campanello shared, this program is only for those who approach the police and ask for help to get to a substance abuse program. It won't change the way Gloucester cops work on the street — drug possession and use are still criminal offenses.
Beyond becoming liaisons for treatment programs, Gloucester police have also made Narcan — an opioid antidote in the form of a nasal spray that can instantly stop an overdose — readily available at local pharmacies without a prescription.
Gary Langis is a Gloucester resident who delivers Narcan door-to-door and trains people on how to use it. A harm reduction activist since the 1980s, Langis told VICE News he is cautiously optimistic about the city's new program.
"I think it's a good thing that they're having this conversation and looking at drug users as not a criminal thing, but as people that need a little help," he said. "But are drug users going to go into the police station where they've been marginalized and demonized by the police?"
Langis said many opioid users he interacts with are still wary about approaching the police for help due to fears of being arrested, and decades of antagonism and poor treatment.
Gloucester police aren't alone in their new compassionate approach. Seattle's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program relies on cooperation between law enforcement and harm reduction personnel to help participants find and maintain a stable drug-free lifestyle. Now in its fourth year, LEAD is generating positive results. The 203 participants in the program are 34 to 58 percent less likely to commit further crimes compared with people who are prosecuted and imprisoned.
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Kris Nyrop, the project director for the Defender Association Racial Disparity Project, was involved in designing and implementing LEAD in Seattle. Nyrop told VICE News he has spoken with cops across the country who are frustrated by the status quo of dealing with addiction by arresting drug users.
"The police has been the front lines of the war on drugs for decades," Nyrop said. "They have carried out the mandate that the rest of society has given on do something on drug problems. In a lot of cases, police officers will talk about the fact that they have arrested individuals multiple times and has done nothing. But at least it gets them off the street right now."
Nyrop applauded the Gloucester program, and said police and prosecutors in other places ought to adopt the same approach and stop arresting drug users all together. Arresting users, he pointed out, has failed to show any positive results in battling addiction.
Follow Nilo Tabrizy on Twitter: @ntabrizy