The message from the police chief lit up Facebook in May 2015.
“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,” the Gloucester (Massachusetts) Police Department post read. “Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery. Not in hours or days, but on the spot.”
The stunning memo was a last-ditch attempt by Leonard Campanello, Gloucester’s frustrated police chief, after the town’s fourth fatal opioid overdose in the first few months of 2015 – more than had died by drug overdose the entire previous year. Campanello’s words, written in the straight-talking lingo of a police officer who means business, set off a chain of events even the seasoned chief couldn’t have predicted.
Since that 2015 message, more than 450 addicts from across the state have walked through the police station’s doors. Nearly all have been placed into treatment, some multiple times. Rates of crimes typically associated with substance abuse – like shoplifting and breaking and entering – in Gloucester have plummeted by roughly 30 percent. One person has overdosed and died in Gloucester since.
Campanello’s idea has spread. Today, roughly 140 police departments in more than 25 states are affiliated with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, the nonprofit group that spun out of Campanello’s proclamation. Some 300 treatment centers around the country offer free scholarships and priority placement to patients seeking treatment through police stations. For rural New Mexican towns with high addiction rates, the program would represent a change in tack for law enforcement officers who have long focused on locking up addicts — even if scant resources present an obstacle to implementation.
In Gloucester, the program begins when an addict walks into the station and asks for help. A designated officer conducts a quick interview, followed by calls to treatment centers that have agreed to work closely with the police. If a person is carrying drugs, syringes or other paraphernalia, the police dispose of it – no questions asked. Revenue from fines paid by convicted drug dealers pays for the bulk of the program.
No two programs nationwide are identical, nor are all located in sprawling East Coast cities. Among the small towns adopting this no-arrest motto is Dixon, Illinois, a town of 15,000 about 100 miles from Chicago. A year ago, after three fatal overdoses in 10 days, the town gathered in search of solutions. Danny Langloss, chief of police in Dixon, was at the meeting when he heard a woman in recovery from addiction explain how Gloucester – a town 1,000 miles away – was trying to help its addicts.
The woman asked, “Would you be willing to try that?”
“The sheriff and I looked at each other ... and we said, ‘Yeah,’” Langloss recalled.
From frustration to hope
Langloss’ willingness to adopt Gloucester’s model was borne of desperation. During his 20 years as a police officer in Dixon, he had observed that addicts were disproportionately responsible for property crimes and petty theft. While he occasionally tried to find help for an addict on his own, treatment centers were often full. He dealt with the grandchildren of people he’d arrested in the 1990s and saw addiction devastate families.
“We’ve been frustrated for a long time,” Langloss said. “What we’re doing isn’t working.”
After a phone call with Campanello, the Gloucester chief, Langloss personally toured nearby treatment facilities. Ten signed on altogether.
Today, addicts who walk through Langloss’ doors meet an officer, who begins by conducting a 20-minute interview to collect the basics, including name and medical history. Langloss or one of three other trained officers will then call treatment partners, asking if they have space available.
To date, Langloss and his team have placed roughly 99 people in treatment, most within a few hours of their arrival. Others, especially those who come in after working hours, find a slot the next day. In about 10 cases involving nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting or trespassing, police have worked with the state attorney’s office to quash an outstanding warrant.
Most referrals come through word of mouth. That was the case for Katelynn Lahman, 21, whose mother called Dixon police after she learned her daughter was using heroin. Langloss helped Lahman find a center that could provide detox and accommodate her medical conditions, plus a plane ticket and scholarship to a rehab center in Florida. Nearly a year later, Langloss checks in with Lahman via text messages.
“He sees me as a human being,” Lahman said.
‘We can’t arrest our way out’
Acknowledging that addiction is a disease, rather than a moral failing, demands some nerve on the part of law enforcement. Possessing or consuming illicit substances is, after all, still a crime, and helping addicts into treatment instead of arresting them contradicts prevailing tough-on-crime attitudes.
“What the police are pointing out to the rest of society is: We can’t fix this problem,” said David Rosenbloom, a Boston University professor who is studying the Gloucester program. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”
Many courts have jail diversion programs that sentence addicts to treatment instead of jail. But PAARI is different, said John Rosenthal, a businessman who co-founded PAARI along with Campanello. Addicts forced into treatment may not be ready to recover, unlike those who voluntarily seek treatment. PAARI also emphasizes reaching addicts before they are charged with a felony, a designation that disqualifies them from services they could use to build a better life, including federal financial aid and employment.
What about New Mexico?
At present, no New Mexico police departments are working with PAARI. Santa Fe is using a new strategy, called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, that involves intense case management instead of jail for nonviolent offenders. But with LEAD, police get involved after a person with addiction has been arrested, not before.
In Española, a town of 10,000 that has led New Mexico in accidental drug overdose rates for 25 years, police efforts have largely focused on enforcing possession laws and arresting dealers. But the cyclical drug use Langloss described in Dixon affects Española, too.
Drug use is intergenerational, and officers there have revived the same people from overdoses multiple times, said Matthew Vigil, deputy chief at the Española Police Department.
Vigil called the PAARI effort “an awesome strategy.” But he said it would face one critical barrier in Española: resources.
“The problem we’re encountering is we don’t have beds available,” Vigil said. With too few services already, he said, a program like this would struggle. One recent afternoon, for example, the waitlist for one of Hoy Recovery Center’s 48 beds near Española was 28 men and six women. People from Rio Arriba County and pregnant women get priority, but entry is rarely immediate.
“We wouldn’t have the capacity to deal with it,” said Lauren Reichelt, director of the county’s health and human services office. “We’d have waiting lists that extend to Narnia.”
Langloss, the Dixon chief, said he once wondered the same thing about his small community.
“I didn’t think there was any way that something like this would work out,” he said. After all, he had tried before – and failed – to find treatment for addicts. But, he figured, the department would lose nothing by trying.
Langloss forged a tighter relationship with local treatment centers. A treatment center in Florida offered him two scholarships, worth about $18,000 each. Some treatment centers take Langloss’ clients at a loss. Others make special arrangements, like moving a bed to make room for one more client, because they support the bigger vision: a change in how law enforcement views addiction.
“This idea just seemed so simple in concept, and just seemed like, now we can get to do what we took this job to do anyway,” Langloss said. “And that’s to help people, to make a difference.”
This story is part of a reporting partnership led by the Solutions Journalism Network.