Police departments in our region and around the country are scrambling to respond to the opioid addiction crisis.
Many have added the overdose rescue drug, Narcan, to their tool belts. Others have stepped up efforts to prosecute heroin dealers. But in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a new program flips policing on its head to help addicts find treatment. In part two of our series on the changing role of police and mental health, Rhode Island Public Radio’s Kristin Gourlay says that, to understand the evolution of police attitudes on this issue, you have to go back several years.
Just ask Annette. She doesn’t want to use her last name. 20 years ago, she was in crisis. She was drinking. Her daughter had been taken away. And one night she couldn’t take it anymore.
“Then before you know it I was at the top of the staircase. I was trying to make myself fall down. It was a very steep staircase. So that maybe I could break my neck and never wake up again.”
Annette says the police came. They told her to get back inside or they’d arrest her. Annette says they gave her a $25 dollar fine for disobeying an order. They didn’t ask if she was suicidal. Didn’t call an ambulance.
“I haven’t thought about that incident until this time. And today I realized that I was asking for help. I was looking for help. I was crying for help. And I needed help.”
Eventually, she got that help, and today she works in the mental health and substance abuse field. But help could have come sooner, had police had more awareness or more training in the needs of people with substance abuse disorders.
“I think today police officers, teachers, parents should have some sort of knowledge about mental illness and substance abuse because today children at an earlier age are starting to drink, starting to smoke, starting to do drugs.”
That knowledge is more crucial than ever as communities around the country struggle with addiction to heroin and other opioids. In one community, Gloucester, Massachusetts, police realized fining and arresting addicts wasn’t working. People were overdosing and dying in record numbers. So they decided to try something totally different. It started with Steve Lesnikoski. He was living in his car in California, of all places, at the time. He was addicted to heroin. One afternoon, he was waiting for his dealer when he saw this news on his phone.
“May of last year, the Gloucester police department put out a press release saying anybody that wants help can come into our department.”
As a heroin user, Lesnikoski would never have voluntarily walked into a police station all the way across the country and asked for help treating his addiction to an illegal drug. But he was ready to try anything.
“You have to be in this absolute desperate state and just devoid of humanity to really change. And that’s where I was. I was dead inside," said Lesnikoski. "And I saw this beacon of light all the way across the country, and I was like, why not?”
They flew him to Massachusetts. When he landed, he walked into the downtown police department in this busy fishing village north of Boston. Police welcomed him and called an ambulance.
“That morning I got to meet police chief Kevin O.," Lesnikoski said, "and he told me this would be the last time I had to do this and that the Gloucester police department stands behind me.”
An officer waited with Lesnikoski, made sure he got into detox and then into treatment. He was the first to take advantage of Gloucester’s offer. And it was around that time Gloucester businessman John Rosenthal heard Gloucester’s then police chief Leonard Camponello talking about his idea to help addicts instead of arrest them on the radio.
“He was going to welcome anyone with the disease of addiction, with or without their drugs, into the Gloucester police department, and help them into treatment versus jail," said Rosenthal. "I called him up literally while he was on the air. And he called me back and said let’s have breakfast.”
Police Assisted Addiction Recovery, or PAARI, was born.
“The Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative starts with the premise that we cannot arrest our way out of the epidemic of opiate overdosing.”
From his position in the real estate business, Rosenthal brought the clout and money of the local business community. The Gloucester police chief brought the willingness of a police department in crisis. Rosenthal says they’ve worked out deals with hospitals, treatment centers, ambulance companies, and others to get addicts intro treatment for free. The funds come from a patchwork of sources.
“So PAARI raises private money. And we do everything from help travel expenses, sometimes halfway houses for people who need it," Rosenthal said. "To date the majority of the dollars that we’ve used are from drug dealer asset forfeiture funds.”
That’s the money police seize when they arrest dealers. More than a hundred police departments across the country have since adopted the PAARI model, all in less than a year and a half. And in Gloucester, the response has been huge.
“In Gloucester alone, 510 people have come into the police department in the last 16 months, and all have been placed into treatment. And all have been told, if you relapse, come back.”
This willingness to help addicts when they’re ready has taken root in nearby Arlington, Massachusetts, too. Police chief Fred Ryan says they also realized that when it came to opioid addiction and overdose, what they had been doing wasn’t saving any lives.
“Previously, we gave them handcuffs," Ryan said. "And we were bringing people to the booking window who really belonged in the health care setting. And now we’re providing a more sophisticated and empathetic approach to dealing with people who need help and not incarceration.”
They’ve adopted the PAARI model, like Gloucester. And Ryan says the community appreciates the change.
“A lot folks have said ‘Ah, finally the cops get it. They’re not going to prosecute their way out of this problem. They’re treating people with the empathy and respect they deserve.'”
Arlington has taken the program a step further. Ryan says police keep a list of people who have survived an overdose. They go down the list, knocking on doors, offering treatment right then and there. If the person isn’t ready, police give them the overdose rescue drug, Narcan, just in case.
PAARI hasn’t yet come to Rhode Island. But most police carry Narcan. And there’s a new requirement that all police take something called mental health first aid training. It’s designed to help police understand more about mental health and substance abuse disorders, and respond with something other than handcuffs when possible.