Massachusetts Police Department Takes New Approach to Drug Arrests

August 14th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Police in Gloucester, Massachusetts are taking an unorthodox approach to handling drug addicts who turn themselves in seeking help, opting to ferry them on a road to recovery instead of booking and charging them with a crime.

To date, the program has seen more than 100 people, and as the Associated Press reports, has inspired other police departments across the country to experiment with similar policies, where the harsh, zero-tolerance ideals of the War on Drugs take a back seat to a more compassionate approach. It's a solution that approaches the problem from the bottom up, according to Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello.

"We can take a drug dealer down and three will replace him. And that drug dealer that's taken off the street does not affect the user at all. What we see now with the coming to light of the addiction issue is that we need to be involved on that side of it, on the demand side of it," Campanello told NPR following the launch of the program in June.

The so-called "Angel policy" treats heroin and opioid addicts as people in need of guidance instead of a criminal charge, sending them on to treatment services staffed by police officers, volunteers, and professional medical clinicians. Addicts can even hand over drugs and drug paraphernalia without being penalized, so long as they get help. When a person asks for treatment, Campanello said, police contact an "angel," a volunteer who waits with the person at a hospital for what are usually publicly funded treatment services. When available, private insurance can also cover costs. For the 104 addicts who have turned themselves in since June, the department has spent about $5,000 putting them through treatment programs, according to AP.

Prosecutors in Gloucester and elsewhere have questioned the authority of police departments alone to grant immunity to those who violate drug laws, saying that the burden should not just be on police to handle addiction issues. And some treatment providers have also voiced concern for putting strains on an system already stretched thin.

But other police departments have nonetheless taken note, taking steps to adopt similar programs to Gloucester's. Just this week, police in Dixon, Illinois announced that along with the county sheriff's office, they would adopt a Gloucester-style model. And in Seattle, Washington, some officers are given the opportunity to send low-level drug and prostitution offenders to treatment programs instead of jail, AP noted.

Gloucester's Campanello created the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a non-profit that aims to support local departments who adopt similar addiction treatment programs, which he says are the way out of the failed drug policies of recent decades.

"It's the next logical step in the so-called war on drugs," Campanello told the AP. "We need to change the conversation."