How a police chief used compassion to combat his community’s drug problem

The approach taken by Gloucester, Massacusetts, might falter in New Mexico, where it’s desperately needed.

 

The message from the chief lit up Facebook in May 2015.

“Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged,” read the memo, posted to the page of the Gloucester, Massachusetts, police department.

“Instead we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery,” the message continued. “Not in hours or days, but on the spot.”

The stunning memo was a last-ditch attempt by Leonard Campanello, Gloucester’s frustrated chief of police, after the town’s fourth fatal opiate overdose in the first few months of 2015 – more than had died by drug overdose the entire previous year. Campanello’s words, written in the straight-talking lingo of a police officer who means business, set off a chain of events even the seasoned chief couldn’t have predicted.

Since that 2015 message, more than 450 addicts from across the state have walked through the police station’s doors. Nearly all have been placed into treatment, some multiple times. Rates of crimes typically associated with substance abuse – like shoplifting and breaking and entering – in Gloucester have plummeted by roughly 30 percent. Only one person has overdosed and died in Gloucester.

And Campanello’s idea has spread. Today, roughly 140 police departments in more than 25 states are affiliated with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, or PAARI, the nonprofit group that spun out of Campanello’s proclamation. Some 300 treatment centers around the country offer free scholarships and priority placement to patients seeking treatment through police stations. For rural New Mexican towns with high addiction rates, the program would represent a change in tack for law enforcement officers that have long focused on locking up addicts — even if scant resources present an obstacle to implementation.   

solutions-alcohol-od-in-valdez-park-9-25-2015-2
Española Police Officer Cody Martinez (left) and Firefighter Jack Martinez begin to examine a man who was suffering from an overdose on unknown drugs Sept. 25, 2015, at Valdez Park in Espanola. They were able to wake him up with a series of sternum rubs, used as a type of pain stimulus applied to the center of the chest.
Photo courtesy of the Rio Grande SUN

In Gloucester, the program begins when an addict walks into the station, asking for help. A designated officer conducts a quick interview, followed by calls to treatment centers that have agreed to work closely with the police. If a person is carrying drugs, syringes or other paraphernalia, the police dispose of it – no questions asked. Revenue from fines paid by convicted drug dealers pays for the bulk of the program. 

No two programs nationwide are identical, nor are all located in sprawling east coast cities. Among the small towns adopting this no-arrest motto is Dixon, Illinois, a town of 15,000 about 100 miles from Chicago. A year ago, after three fatal overdoses in 10 days, the town gathered in search of solutions. Danny Langloss, chief of police in Dixon, was at the meeting when he heard a woman in recovery from addiction explain how Gloucester – a town 1,000 miles away – was trying to help its addicts.

The woman asked, Would you be willing to try that?

 “The sheriff and I looked at each other,” Langloss recalled, “and we said, ‘Yeah.’”

Langloss’ willingness to adopt Gloucester’s model was born of desperation. During his 20 years as a police officer in Dixon, Langloss had observed that addicts were disproportionately responsible for property crimes and petty theft. While he occasionally tried to find help for an addict on his own, treatment centers always told him they were full. He dealt with the grandchildren of people he’d arrested in the 1990s, and saw addiction devastate families.

 “We’ve been frustrated for a long time,” Langloss said. “What we’re doing isn’t working.”

After a phone call with Campanello, the Gloucester chief, Langloss personally toured nearby treatment facilities; 10 signed on altogether. 

Today, addicts who walk through Langloss’ doors meet an officer, who begins by conducting a 20-minute interview to collect the basics, including name and medical history. Then Langloss or one of three other trained officers calls treatment partners, asking if they have space available.

To date, Langloss and his team have placed roughly 99 people in treatment, most within a few hours of their arrival. Others, especially those who come in after working hours, find a slot the next day. In about 10 cases involving nonviolent crimes like shoplifting or trespassing, police have worked with the state attorney’s office to quash an outstanding warrant.

Most referrals come through word of mouth. That was the case for Katelynn Lahman, 21, whose mother called Dixon police after she learned her daughter was using heroin. Langloss helped Lahman find a center that could provide detox and accommodate her medical conditions, and a plane ticket and scholarship to a rehab center in Florida. Nearly a year later, Langloss checks in with Lahman via text messages. How are you doing? How’s work going?

“He sees me as a human being,” Lahman said.

Acknowledging that addiction is a disease, rather than a moral failing, demands some nerve on the part of law enforcement. Possessing or consuming illicit substances is, after all, still a crime, and helping addicts into treatment instead of arresting them contradicts prevailing tough-on-crime attitudes.

“What the police are pointing out to the rest of society is: We can’t fix this problem,” said David Rosenbloom, a Boston University professor who is studying the Gloucester program. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”

Many courts have jail diversion programs that sentence addicts to treatment instead of jail. But PAARI is different, said John Rosenthal, a businessman who cofounded PAARI along with Campanello. Addicts forced into treatment may not be ready to recover, unlike those who voluntarily seek treatment. PAARI also emphasizes reaching addicts before they are charged with a felony, a designation that disqualifies them from services they could use to build a better life, including federal financial aid and employment.

At present, no New Mexico police departments are working with PAARI. Santa Fe is using a new strategy, called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, or LEAD, that involves intense case management instead of jail for nonviolent offenders. But with LEAD, police get involved after a person with addiction has been arrested, not before.

In Española, a town of 10,000 that has led New Mexico in accidental drug overdose rates for 25 years, police efforts have largely focused on enforcing possession laws and arresting dealers. But the cyclical drug use Langloss described in Dixon affects Española, too. Drug use is intergenerational, and officers there have revived the same people from overdoses multiple times, said Matthew Vigil, deputy chief at the Española Police Department. 

Vigil called the PAARI effort “an awesome strategy.” But he said it would face one critical barrier in Española: resources.

“The problem we’re encountering is we don’t have beds available,” Vigil said. With too few services already, he said, a program like this would struggle. One recent afternoon, for example, the waitlist for one of Hoy Recovery Center’s 48 beds near Española was 28 men and six women long. People from Rio Arriba County and pregnant women get priority, but entry is rarely immediate.

“We wouldn’t have the capacity to deal with it,” said Lauren Reichelt, director of the county’s health and human services office. “We’d have waiting lists that extend to Narnia.”

Langloss, the Dixon, Illinois, chief, said he once wondered the same thing about his small community.

“I didn’t think there was any way that something like this would work out,” he said. After all, he had tried before – and failed – to find treatment for addicts. But, he figured, the department would lose nothing by trying.

Langloss forged a tighter relationship with local treatment centers. A treatment center in Florida offered him two scholarships, worth about $18,000 each. Some treatment centers take Langloss’ clients at a loss. Others make special arrangements, like moving a bed to make room for one more client, because they support the bigger vision: a change in how law enforcement views addiction. 

“This idea just seemed so simple in concept, and just seemed like, now we can get to do what we took this job to do anyway,” Langloss said. “And that’s to help people, to make a difference.”

This story is part of the "Small towns, big change" project through the Solutions Journalism Network.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: