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Policing Addiction

News & Features | March 16, 2016

On an evening in early June of 2015, a man who was addicted to heroin got on a plane in California and flew to Boston Logan International Airport. A viral message on Facebook originally posted by the Gloucester Police Department convinced him that he needed to make the trip.

In the message, the department’s chief, Leonard Campanello, made a public commitment to revolutionize the way Gloucester addresses opioid addiction. From now on, he wrote, instead of charging addicts, the police department would open its doors and immediately find rehabilitative treatment for those who came in seeking it. The post stressed that opioid addiction would now be treated as a “disease” and public health issue instead of a crime.

When the man from California landed in Boston, a relative picked him up and drove him to Gloucester. At around 2:00 a.m. he was dropped off at the police station, walked inside and became the first person to enter the department’s rehabilitation or “Angel Program.” After a couple of hours and several phone calls, police officers found a treatment center in California that would fly the addict back and treat him free of charge. After facing 10 years of addiction, today the man who traveled to Gloucester is nine months clean.

Since it began last June, the Angel Program at the Gloucester Police department, along with similar programs at 56 other police departments in 17 states, have helped over 400 addicts find treatment, setting the precedent for rehabilitative policing models in the US. The flagship program in Gloucester has become particularly popular and is described by Campanello as a “Mecca” for opioid addicts seeking treatment: 60 percent of those who seek treatment come from outside the Gloucester area.

The original program in Gloucester was born out of a town hall meeting on the subject of addiction. The meeting itself was prompted by recent tragedy—four heroin overdoses that occurred in the town during the first three months of 2015. The consensus that came out of the meeting was that the town and its police chief, Leonard Campanello, were tired of the inefficiencies caused by the war on drugs and the way it disenfranchises drug addicts.

“The reality is that it’s done nothing, absolutely nothing in terms of reducing the amount of illegal drugs on the street, reducing addiction, reducing death,” Campanello said. “It’s been a war on addicted people and a war on addiction more than a war on drugs.”

Throughout the US, addiction and deaths related to opioid use are at an all-time high. Since 1999, the rate of overdose from prescription opioids and heroin has quadrupled: today 78 Americans die every day from opioid abuse, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Campanello blames this trend on doctors, who in the last 10 years have prescribed prescription opioids more freely than ever. With the increased accessibility of prescription opioids leading to a greater rate of addiction, more people are turning to heroin as a cheaper alternative to getting high. Today 80 percent of heroin addicts begin as prescription drug addicts.

Campanello is staunch in his belief that the aggressive policing of drug addicts can’t solve the current opioid crisis. He says that his time as a narcotics detective at the Saugus Police Department informs his opinion. Campanello spent seven years making drug arrests, targeting abusers across the spectrum—from prolific drug dealers to low-level offenders. “But you know after seven years of doing that, even the stupidest among us would have to say we’re not getting anywhere,” he said. “It was pretty much known anyway that [aggressive policing] was an utter failure. But we hate to admit it because we hate to lose.”

He says that the rehabilitative model is more effective than putting drug addicts in jail because users frequently relapse after they are released. Treating addicts increases the chance of keeping them off drugs long-term, permanently reducing the market for drug dealers. “If you reduce a customer base for any business they’re going to go under,” he explained.

When addicts walk into the Gloucester Police Department seeking treatment, they are immediately paired up with one of 55 “angels” who are volunteers with experience or knowledge about addiction. These volunteers provide counseling and determine what kind of care addicts need. Police officers then call rehabilitation centers until they find one that has the space to take in the individual seeking treatment.

According to Campanello, providing addicts with treatment is far cheaper than arresting them: treatment on average costs the taxpayer close to a total of $60, while arrest, detainment and court fees costs over $220. Funding for the program comes from the money seized from drug dealers and it can also often be covered by insurance companies—at the beginning of this year, most insurance companies in Massachusetts signed on to partner with Gloucester’s program. A non-profit created by Campanello and other police departments that have similarly adopted rehabilitative policing models also helps accumulate funding. This non-profit, called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) currently has access to $60 million in “scholarships” to rehabilitation centers.

Despite its success, Gloucester’s program has been met with some criticism. Campanello says people also often approach him questioning why the police are offering help to those who break the law and “choose” to become addicted to drugs. He says those who criticize the Angel Program in this way are buying into the stigma that he is trying to break.

“We do try a lot to reduce the stigma of addiction because addiction is…a disease that presents and has the same pathology as cancer or diabetes,” he said. “There is some engrained mentality to it across the board saying these people are junkies…and we don’t use the word junkie in Gloucester anymore. It’s banned It’s like all the other bad words you’re not supposed to use,” he said.

The Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lauds Gloucester’s rehabilitative model for drug addicts and says it’s doing an effective job at reducing the negative stigma surrounding addicts. Matt Allen, who is a field organizer at the Massachusetts ACLU, says the stigma is created by the harsh sentencing laws that target drug users and addicts who should be getting treatment.

“We try to prevent [addiction] through moralistic policies, which contributes to a system that drives people underground and makes them less likely to seek treatment,” he said.

According to Campanello, Gloucester’s Angel program has not only reduced the number of addicts on the streets and overdoses that happen in town—there has only been one since the program’s inception—but it has also reduced crime in general. Its success has encouraged dozens of other police departments across the country to adopt similar models, with 56 departments currently offering amnesty programs and over 100 poised to do so shortly.

Because of the success of the Angel Program, Campanello says he’s taken more trips around in the country in six months than he has in thirty years. He consults and gives talks to police departments and communities in states from all regions of the U.S. about how they can implement their own rehabilitative programs. One of the towns he’s proudest to have influenced is Scarborough, Maine—a place he claims used to send the National Guard in to arrest drug addicts and that is now placing dozens of addicts in treatment.

These days, because of his consulting work and speech giving, Campanello is getting accustomed to wearing a suit and tie instead of a badge and gun. He says running the Angel Program and serving as Gloucester’s police chief has been like working two full time jobs at once. But he’s got a lot of work to do if he wants to reach his goal for the program. Eventually, he hopes that police won’t need to run rehabilitative programs and that there will be facilities throughout the country where drug addicts can walk in and have immediate access to sustainable care. He knows his goal is lofty, but he says he’s willing to make sacrifices in order to fight for it.

“February 9, 2023 —that’s the day I retire. But if that doesn’t happen by then I’ll stay.”