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Opioid Epidemic Moves Police To Help Rather Than Arrest Drug Users


Growing awareness of America's opioid epidemic has police departments trying out something new. Around the country, law enforcement officers are starting up programs that try to help drug users rather than arresting them. From member station WBUR in Boston, Deborah Becker reports.

DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: In the past year, since police in Gloucester, Mass., offered to help drug users get into treatment rather than arrest them, officers have been making calls like this one to drug treatment centers.

JEREMIAH NICASTRO: Hi, Sergeant Nicastro, Gloucester police.

BECKER: This is the fourth time in six hours that Sergeant Jeremiah Nicastro looked for a detox bed for someone who came to the station asking for help.

NICASTRO: Do you have any male beds?

BECKER: Just minutes before, a 25-year-old man came into the police station lobby, handed Sergeant Nicastro his syringes and said he was ready to stop shooting heroin.

NICASTRO: First thing he says is I just need help. I need help. He's anxious, but he knows if he doesn't go to treatment, his addiction's going to get worse.

BECKER: After about 40 minutes, the man was on his way to treatment. This is known as the ANGEL Program, started by Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello. He says with police on the frontlines of the nation's opioid epidemic, they had to do something different to respond to the same people repeatedly cycling through the criminal justice system because of addiction.

LEONARD CAMPANELLO: We're an entity that, right, wrong or indifferent, has a very loud voice in this right now. Our job is to lend that voice to people who are suffering from this disease and their support groups.

BECKER: Chief Campanello says since the program began last June, there's been a drop in fatal overdoses in Gloucester and a 27-percent reduction in drug-related crime. Boston University School of Public Health researchers say a preliminary survey of ANGEL participants shows that most at least finish a treatment program. BU Public Health Professor David Rosenbloom believes that having law enforcement involved like this will help.

DAVID ROSENBLOOM: I think we are ultimately going to see that people who receive the kind of help that they've received by going into a police station, of all places, we think that people going through a program like that with continuing support are more likely to be successful.

BECKER: Campanello says more than 100 police departments around the country are now implementing similar programs. About a dozen other departments are going with a different program known as, LEAD which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. It started in the Seattle area about five years ago. And the way it works is that when police come in contact with a low-level offender, the officer determines whether to send that person for social services or make an arrest. The LEAD program involves prosecutors. Gloucester does not. Some Massachusetts prosecutors say that's a problem. Cape Cod District Attorney Michael O'Keefe questions whether police can promise not to arrest known drug users.

MICHAEL O'KEEFE: It's the role of the district attorney with a judge in court to get involved with the issue of immunity. Taking that and repositing it in the hands of police, that's not where it belongs.

BECKER: But Chuck Wexler, with the Police Executive Research Forum, says because this involves a deadly public health problem, changes within police departments are essential.

CHUCK WEXLER: It doesn't mean the law enforcement part of their job isn't going to get done. That function is still going to continue. But here this is all about, quite frankly, the sanctity of human life.

BECKER: For Sergeant Nicastro in Gloucester, he says this new role is what he signed up for.

NICASTRO: I'd rather help somebody than arrest somebody. If I can play a part in getting someone clean, that means a lot to me.

BECKER: And Nicastro says the fact that so many police departments are signing on shows that most of his colleagues feel the same. For NPR News, I'm Deborah Becker in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Becker