Last year, the police chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts, made an unusual offer on his department’s Facebook page. Heroin addicts who come voluntarily to the police station will not get arrested; they’ll get help.
The post went viral and led to the creation of the Gloucester Angel program, in which the police help addicts find drug treatment options.
The Gloucester effort has gotten national press and inspired dozens of other police departments around the country – though not all of them have been quite as successful.
A kinder, gentler police chief
Police Chief Chip Dodge of Montague, Massachusetts offers to drive around on a tour of Turners Falls – a town of 5,000 people in his jurisdiction. He borrows one of his officer’s marked cars, and notices a pamphlet on opiate addiction tucked above the visor.
“To see that, makes me pleased that it’s not stuffed away in a glove box somewhere,” Dodge says.
Turners Falls, like many rural towns in New England, has seen a huge spike in heroin use over the past decade. The epidemic was set off, experts say, by a boom in painkiller prescriptions. People often start with opiate pills, get addicted to the high, and move onto heroin, which is cheaper and easier to get.
As evidence of this trend, Dodge drives by an old Victorian house in the downtown. “This was a huge drug house,” he says, unrolling his window to peer out. “The board of health went in and condemned the building, and everyone’s been kicked out.”
He waves to a couple of older women walking their dogs, goes past a backyard where a toddler once stepped on a used heroin needle, and drives slowly around a man who is walking obliviously down the middle of the road.
“We must be pretty tough around here if they’ll walk down the road like that,” he says with a chuckle.
Times are changing
It’s against this backdrop of familiarity and economic struggle that Dodge hopes to upend the traditional, adversarial relationship between police and drug users.
“When I first started as a police officer in 1992, when I thought of heroin, I thought of major crime,” he says. “You knew it was a felony. You knew it was real bad.”
Back then, he says, if officers came across someone with heroin on them, “we would have arrested them for possession of heroin.”
And it wasn’t that common. But by 2014, two years after Dodge became chief, the Massachusetts governor declared heroin addiction a state emergency. Nationally, the number of addicts had doubled over a decade. Young people were dying regularly from overdoses.
Dodge started to go to regional trainings on the opioid crisis, meeting doctors and social workers who convinced him that addiction is a disease.
“Also, in this position, people tend to trust you and share a little bit more,” Dodge says. “I’ve had people come in and sit down and talk to me and want to know how to get help. And I never would have guessed in a million years that those people were addicted.”
Last summer, Dodge posted a message to the police department’s Facebook page. He said anyone addicted to opiates, be it pills or heroin, can drop off their drugs at the station, no questions asked, and get help kicking their habit. They would not get arrested.
Dodge was borrowing directly from a similar post by Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello. But Dodge says his fleet of 23 officers didn’t immediately buy into this kinder, gentler police force.
“I’m not going to lie; when I first started introducing this to some of the officers, saying we’re going to try to get people help, I got some pretty funny looks,” he says.
Sergeant Leon Laster, a 17-year-veteran of the force, remembers those looks. “[The new policy] kind of goes against everything that a cop was taught – you break the law, you go to jail.”
Laster has spent much of his career in drug enforcement, arresting people for cocaine, crack, and heroin, not to mention property or violent crime that can go along with the drug trade.
“Cops don’t like change, and when I say that, what I mean is, a lot of things change,” Laster says. “It’s not really a great time to be cops, and this is one more thing like, OK, ‘Are they tying our hands so we can’t do our job? What is this about?’ So it was new to us.”
But Laster says the local police culture has become more empathetic under Dodge’s leadership, at least towards addicts.
“When you sit back and look at it, it’s a great idea,” Laster says. “My only concern [was], did we have services in place at that moment before we started advertising?”
It’s this question of access — more than police attitudes — that Chief Dodge finds frustrating.
“When somebody does have a problem, we want to be able to call up and get them a bed,” he says. “Right now, all I can do is give them a whole bunch of ideas.”
Modeling on Gloucester
On the other side of Massachusetts, Gloucester — a coastal town of about 30,000 people — reports getting 400 addicts into treatment in the past year. But Dodge says his department has been much less successful. Since there are so few treatment options in this mostly rural county, he says all they can really offer is a ride to the emergency room.
“If it was my family member,” Dodge says, “I would drive them right to Gloucester [Police Department] and pull in and say, ‘Help’. Because they have the resources, they have the plan.
He wouldn’t be the only one. Gloucester’s Police Chief Leonard Campanello says 60 to 70 percent of the addicts asking his department for help come from outside the city, and some outside the state. So he set up a nonprofit to help other police departments launch similar programs around the country; 60 have signed up so far.
Despite Chief Dodge’s experience, “there are plenty of treatment options out there; it’s a matter of connecting people with that,” Campanello says.
“I think you have to start looking outside of your own community, he adds. “We don’t place anybody in Gloucester. We don’t have a facility. We have an emergency room. We never take anyone there.
Campanello says he’s willing to help Dodge find treatment centers closer to Turners Falls.
Building relationships on the street
For now, Dodge says he’s still working on building trust between addicts and police.
On our ride through Turners Falls, Dodge comes upon a woman stumbling along a busy road, apparently intoxicated from something.
“Hi, How are you?” he calls out, getting out of the cruiser. “You OK?”
The woman tells him she’s coming off drugs from the dentist and doesn’t need help. A quick call to the station reveals she’s had many run-ins with police, but Dodge instructs an officer to just wait with her until a friend picks her up.
A few years ago, Dodge says, this might have been a much tenser interaction.
“We do arrest, don’t get me wrong, especially large amounts that – you’re the dealer or whatever. We don’t have a lot of sympathy for that person,” he says. “But we do look into the circumstances a little more. If you find somebody with some heroin or something, we like to know the story. Why?”
Compassionate police or not, Dodge says the opioid crisis is getting worse — his officers respond to at least one overdose a month. And while he won’t arrest anyone asking for help, he has noticed that sometimes the only thing that makes an addict want to stop using….. is time in jail.