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Mass. police chiefs weigh in on amnesty for addicts

Chief Leonard Campanello decided last summer to offer amnesty to drug addicts who walked into his station looking to get clean

By Brad Petrishen
Telegram & Gazette

WORCESTER, Mass. — Long before opioids firmed their grip on the middle class and became everybody’s problem, they were mostly the problem of the police.

A decade ago, when many current police chiefs were still climbing the ranks, there were no omnibus opioid bills, no destigmatization campaigns, no widely available, life-saving sprays.

Public sentiment did not sway toward the heroin abuser, and the prime charge of police officers was to arrest, not triage.

But people were still dying – perhaps not as many, perhaps not as publicly – and those deaths, as they increased over the years, grated on the men and women who had to watch them die, place them under sheets and speak to their families.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that many of those officers – including many in Central Massachusetts – are embracing, in varying degrees, a new model of dealing with addicts started by a fed-up chief in Gloucester.

“I start with an apology,” Chief Leonard Campanello said as he described his talks nowadays with loved ones of opiate scourge casualties. “I say, ‘We didn’t get it. We were asked to arrest people without looking at the bigger picture.’”

Chief Campanello has in the past year become the face of a paradigm shift in law enforcement surrounding opioid addicts. When he decided last summer to offer amnesty to drug addicts who walked into his station looking to get clean, he generated headlines around the world, and has since created a nonprofit organization aimed at helping others implement his philosophy across the country.

“We are absolutely not soft on crime. But people need help,” said Southbridge Chief Shane D. Woodson, who launched a program similar to Chief Campanello’s last month.

A year after Chief Campanello’s bold announcement, more than 130 police departments in 28 states – including Nashville, Tennessee, and Anaheim, California – have partnered with the movement.

“We’re on board,” said Worcester Police Chief Steven M. Sargent, whose department has for months been following up and trying to help people treated with the life-saving drug Narcan.

An unscientific email survey of Central Massachusetts police chiefs last week found general support for the Gloucester model among respondents. And while the largest collection of police chiefs in the state has yet to endorse the idea – taking a nod, perhaps, from district attorneys who have voiced opposition – it’s clear that a sea change is underway in many departments.

“I think eventually this is going to be the norm,” Chief Woodson said. “What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked.”

“Cops are people, too”
Talk to police chiefs who have been in the business for a while, and they’ll tell you: The job was a lot different 30 years ago.

“When I came on 20 years ago, we had one, two, maybe three suicide calls a year,” said Sutton Police Chief Dennis J. Towle. “We get a suicide call a week now.

“What the hell is going on? I don’t know,” he asked, lamenting a narrative many have advanced: police have become the de facto guardians against a host of society’s failings.

“We’re called upon to be social workers, teachers, parents – I look back on what we did in law enforcement 30 years ago, and it’s totally different,” Fitchburg Chief Ernest F. Martineau said.

As the roles of police officers have expanded, so too has frustration. The opioid epidemic is a prime example; while compassion is certainly a prime motivator in the latest policing shift, exasperation is admittedly one, too.

“Enough is enough,” said Chief Campanello, who, like many chiefs, is sick of expending resources arresting the same people over and over, and disgusted by what he sees as a lack of accountability on the part of industries seen as contributing to the epidemic.

“We’re not doing the jobs of pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies anymore,” he said. “Incarceration and arrest have not been enough for 50 years.”

And so, Chief Campanello and others are working to get nonviolent drug offenders out of their holding cells and into treatment facilities. Their programs are designed to help those who seek the help themselves, but, several chiefs acknowledged, individual police officers are increasingly using discretion when they catch people with opioids out on the streets.

“The strongest tool we have in law enforcement is discretion, and I encourage my officers to use that tool very wisely,” said Chief Martineau. He said while he’s not whetted to giving “free passes” on criminal activity, each circumstance is different.

“If you’ve got an addict with a criminal history – he’s done 12 B&Es – will (an officer) give that person a pass? Probably not,” he said. “But if there’s a soccer mom’s kid hooked on percs (Percocet) with no criminal history, and we might catch him with an illegal substance – that’s where discretion comes into play.”

“You temper justice with mercy,” Chief Towle said. “Cops are people, too. They’ve got friends, family and relatives who have been affected by this.”

Chief Towle, the head of the Central Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said he believes most area departments are sick of dealing with overdoses and bodies, and looking for ways to change.

He, like many area chiefs, has accepted the idea that opiate addiction is a disease that grabs hold of the body and won’t let go.

“It’s like walking into a pool,” he said. People start by wading in – maybe they took pain pills after a surgery – and before they know it, they’re in the deep end, struggling to keep from drowning.

“It’s disgusting – to see where some of these people are – 99 percent of them are good people, they just took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a mess,” he said.

Chief Towle said he doesn’t believe there are many police officers who wouldn’t try to help an addict who walked into the station asking for help. And officers can use their discretion on calls, too, he said – selectively.

“Many of these people are being untruthful,” he said, and people caught in the commission of drug-fueled crimes like theft will be arrested.

But sometimes, the chief said, officers run into people – in his town, often at the Econo Lodge Motel on Route 146 – who need compassion.

“We run into people with some pretty sad stories down there,” he said. “Yeah, we’re going to try and help them out.”

Dissenting opinions
Not everyone in the law enforcement community thinks Chief Campanello’s idea is a good one.

His county’s district attorney, Jonathan W. Blodgett, has criticized the idea, warning Chief Campanello in a May 20, 2015, letter that “an explicit promise not to charge a person who unlawfully possesses drugs may amount to a charging promise that you lack legal authority to make.”

And on Thursday, David F. Capeless, the Berkshire County District Attorney and the president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, offered highly skeptical remarks to a reporter.

“Are people taking advantage of this, or is this simply a get-out-of-jail-free card?” Mr. Capeless asked. He noted that many prosecutors already have jail-diversion programs, while more and more drug courts – courts that give addicts second chances – are popping up.

Mr. Capeless said it is unclear to him whether the Gloucester program is “working” – or if there is even a definition for what “working” would be.

“The concern we have with the Gloucester program is – we’d like some facts about what, if anything, it’s actually doing, and we’re not getting any answers.”

Chief Campanello’s nonprofit – The Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative – has been tracking results of the “Gloucester Angels” program with the help of one of its board members.

Mr. Capeless said that the DAs have requested results from “someone who helped set it up” but have “not received anything back.”

Chief Campanello disputed the statement, saying not one district attorney has asked anybody in his department or at PAARI for any facts related to the program.

Another criticism Mr. Capeless had is that, by offering amnesty to drug addicts walking into the station, police are effectively eliminating discretion and creating policy. It is the DAs, he noted, that are elected to determine who gets prosecuted for what.

“Spoken like a true elected politician,” Chief Campanello said when informed of the remark. “Prosecutors are responsible for adjudicating people postarrest. They have no discretion in prearrest decisions before people enter the court system.

“Police officers’ jobs are steeped in discretion that crosses into policy and procedure on every page of every police department’s manual.”

Chief Campanello said he sees little difference between his program and DA-supported efforts such as gun buyback programs, which accept the firearms no questions asked.

“For some reason, when we started offering people the opportunity to get help without the stigma of arrest over their head, they (the DAs) started jawing about it, and I don’t know why,” he said. “I can only surmise they feel their toes are being stepped on. And I would ask, ‘What jurisdiction, prearrest, do prosecutors have?’”

Chief Campanello chuckled when informed of a statement Mr. Capeless made about the criminal justice system often being the best thing to happen to many people.

“The community doesn’t want us further stigmatizing, further blockading a person, from recovery by adding an arrest to their already difficult lives,” he said, stressing that the current model just isn’t working.

“How long can you be a lemming, when logic is slapping you in the face?”

That logic has appealed to the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association as well as several local departments – Worcester, Marlboro, Lunenburg, Sturbridge and Southbridge – all of whom are official PAARI partners.

But the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association – the largest collection of police chiefs statewide - has yet to sign on.

“I’d call the level of support tepid right now,” said Executive Director Mark K. Leahy. “Given the difference of opinions, some chiefs are hesitant to conflict with their district attorney, who is the chief law enforcement officer in the county.”

The office of Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. did not respond to a request for an interview or statement on the topic.

Chiefs Sargent and Woodson said Mr. Early has not reached out to them with any concerns about their programs.

“This epidemic is at every socioeconomic level,” said Chief Sargent. He said that since August 2014, Worcester police officers alone – no EMTs or firefighters included – have revived 120 people suffering from overdoses.

“We know we can’t arrest our way out of this problem, so we need to attack it as a disease,” he said.

Chief Sargent said if an addict walks up to a police officer in the city today and, in good faith, hands over a bag of heroin and asks for help, they will receive it.

“We’re trying to remove the stigma,” he said. “We’re breaking down barriers.”

“I like to have less business”
Dudley District Court First Justice Timothy M. Bibaud, who presides over the district’s drug court, said he supports programs like the ones in Southbridge and Gloucester.

“I’m not worried about any toes getting stepped on,” Judge Bibaud said. “The quicker we can get folks into treatment, the better.”

Judge Bibaud is proud of the 33 addicts who have graduated from his court’s program in the last 14 months, but said if nonviolent offenders can be safely diverted from the court, that’s fine, too.

“I like to have less business,” he said. “If they’re in treatment somewhere, I don’t care how they get there.

“We’re looking at a really horrific situation here,” he added of the epidemic. “I’m a hopeful guy, but we’re getting steamrolled by this thing.”

While Essex County DA Blodgett has concerns about the program, Essex County Sheriff Frank G. Cousins Jr. does not. Not only is he a partner of PAARI, but he runs his own pretrial detoxification program for men and women facing drug charges.

“This whole county has taken a different approach,” said Sheriff Cousins, whose program has, in the last six months, helped more than 270 people resolve their cases in court following the 28-day detox.

“We’re going to have 1,400 people in this state die of drug overdoses this year – more than guns, more than drunken driving,” he said, going on to estimate that 90 percent of the people in his jails have substance abuse problems.

“I have almost 1,300 people locked up today at the Middleton House of Corrections – the largest inmate population in the state – and that’s nothing to be proud of,” he said. “It’s all drugs.”

Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis agreed with his colleague’s 90 percent figure.

“The jails are full because of substance abuse,” he said, and most people committing crimes are doing it to get high.

“This is a war we’re in now. We lost 58,000 Americans in Vietnam. We lost 48,000 Americans last year to opioid addiction,” he said.

Sheriff Evangelidis has created several “community correction centers” – nonresident programs that act as an alternative to jail time for drug offenders who violate probation.

Somebody who might go to prison for a dirty urine test, should they be deemed eligible, could go to the center instead, the sheriff said, where, as long as they stay clean, they can avoid jail and take advantage of a number of transportation, recovery and educational services

“I’m fully supportive of creatively approaching this epidemic that’s killing our young people,” said the sheriff. He is reserving final judgment on the Gloucester program, but reasoned that, since participants seek out police, they are more likely to succeed.

David L. Rosenbloom, a Boston University School of Public Health professor who sits on the PAARI board and is studying the program, said early returns are promising.

Ninety-five percent of the more than 450 people who have come through the Gloucester “Angel” program were placed in treatment within hours of walking into the station, he said.

“The evidence is very strong that getting someone in quickly is an extraordinarily effective starting point,” he said, noting that after police make the connections, it’s up to the patients and the treatment facilities to work on the addiction.

That’s a fact Chief Campanello knows too well. One day last December, he learned that Stephenie O. Jesi, a 33-year-old woman who had been in and out of his program, had lost her struggle.

“The death was devastating, personally and professionally,” Chief Campanello said. “I felt we had not done our jobs.”

But Ms. Jesi’s family did not share that view. They asked people to donate to PAARI in the obituary. They hosted an event to raise money for the cause. And, on a frigid Saturday before Christmas, they asked Chief Campanello to deliver the woman’s eulogy.

“They said the police were the only ones that answered the phone when they called for help,” Chief Campanello recalled. “The family was so supportive (of me) when they should have been the ones being supported.”

PAARI has established a $1,000 scholarship in Ms. Jesi’s name, to be given to three Angel participants each year.

“There’s a cliché – ‘If you save one life, it’s worth it,’ ” Chief Campanello said. “I know we can save more than one life in law enforcement, and I know my officers, and officers in other communities, have been building trust and good relations with the public - and that is sorely needed.”