From the time he was a little kid, Michael Simoneau wanted to be a cop. His dream has led him to serve 17 years with his hometown police department, in Falmouth.
But nothing prepared the sergeant for the kind of work he has been doing recently.
Once or twice a month since April, Simoneau spends a day knocking on the doors of recent survivors of drug overdoses. He doesn’t arrest anybody. He doesn’t search for contraband. Instead, accompanied by two drug counselors, he asks if the person wants treatment for addiction.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d ever be doing something like this,” Simoneau said, “but the game had to change.”
Around the state, officers such as Simoneau find themselves thrust into an unfamiliar role, as police chiefs — fed up with arresting addicts over and over — look for new ways to hold back the tide of overdose deaths. More than 1,200 people succumbed to opioid-related overdoses last year, the most ever.
“There has been a growing movement for many years in policing to recognize drug addiction as a health problem rather than a criminal problem,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a national nonprofit that promotes innovation in policing. Helping people into treatment, he said, becomes a means of crime prevention.
Although Governor Charlie Baker has proposed allowing hospitals to hold addicts against their will, the police programs move in the opposite direction — emphasizing that they are voluntary.
Still, as such programs catch on, critics question whether police are adequately trained to take on a public health role.
“Police are trained in one thing, and it’s not that,” said Ric Curtis, an anthropology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “I wouldn’t want them showing up at my door with such an offer. I’d feel compelled to say yes.”
But proponents assert that police play an essential role because they are plugged in to the community. The officers know the drug users and where they hang out and can make connections to people who might otherwise be unreachable.
That realization inspired a new program in Arlington. When drug dealers are arrested, the police usually know who all their customers are but until recently did nothing with that information. Now, the names of known drug users are shared with a state-funded social worker embedded in the Police Department, who reaches out to users.
“We can’t sit around and wait for them to overdose,” Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan said.
Since July 1, the social worker, Rebecca Wolfe, has contacted 52 Arlington residents, 18 of whom agreed to be trained in the use of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan . Five others were involuntarily committed to treatment, and eight agreed to enter detox.
Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello made headlines in May when he announced that any addict who came to the Police Department would be offered help instead of risking arrest. Since then, the Gloucester police have found treatment beds — some out of state — for 220 people, typically within hours of them arriving at the police station.
Campanello partnered with businessman and activist John E. Rosenthal (the founder of Stop Handgun Violence) to form a nonprofit, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which has enlisted 26 law enforcement agencies in nine states that have pledged to launch projects similar to Gloucester’s.
The initiative on the Cape, started by the Gosnold treatment center, involves police in Harwich, Dennis, and Yarmouth as well as Falmouth. By early October, the Gosnold team had visited 61 overdose survivors in the four towns, and 42 had entered treatment.
“When we first show up, they’re apprehensive,” said Kristoph Pydynkowski, Gosnold’s recovery coach coordinator, who accompanies the police officer. “They’re like, ‘All right, this is cool, but when are the handcuffs going to come out?’ ”
Then recovery coach Brendan Gettings and Pydynkowski explain their purpose. But often, it’s the man from law enforcement — the 43-year-old Simoneau — who puts people at ease. Pydynkowski recalled a grandmother at one household who welcomed the three men because she remembered Simoneau when he was a Boy Scout.
Brandon Buchanan also recognized Simoneau, a previous acquaintance of his father and uncle, when the three came to his door. He expected questions about where he got the drugs that led to his overdose a couple of days earlier.
Instead, they asked if he wanted any help. At age 19, Buchanan was already back to using heroin after his third overdose, feeling powerless over his addiction. “I was so hopeless that I really thought I was going to die with a needle in my arm,” he said.
But Gettings and Pydynkowski shared their own personal stories of recovery. “They just gave me the little bit of hope I needed,” Buchanan said. He agreed to enter treatment at Gosnold.
Although the Gloucester and Cape police departments have specific programs, many others quietly and informally visit households struggling with addiction or help locate treatment beds, said Norwood Police Chief William G. Brooks III, second vice president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, called the police involvement “a positive development” but cautioned that officers need the tools to fulfill this role effectively. Police academy training does not address the issue, and officers’ success at getting someone into treatment doesn’t win them a promotion, he noted. “Their job description does not include this kind of activity,” Beletsky said.
It’s too soon to tell whether the police interventions will prove effective. In Seattle, a four-year-old program that allows police officers to divert drug offenders to supportive services instead of arresting them has been found to reduce the likelihood of future arrest.
David L. Rosenbloom, professor of health policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health and a board member of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, said he hopes to obtain funding to track and study the Massachusetts programs.
Meanwhile, Rosenbloom sees no downside, saying the police efforts will make treatment more widely available.
But can the treatment system respond? In Arlington, even when the social worker persuades someone to seek care, the person often must wait days or even weeks to find a placement. In Gloucester, with persistent phone-calling, police have managed to find beds. But Chief Campanello admits he’s not sure why they’ve been so successful.
“Even doctors are calling us asking how we’re finding beds,” he said.
Charles J. Faris, president of Spectrum Health Systems, a treatment center working with the Gloucester police, worries that such programs may become a victim of their own success — if they become so widespread that there aren’t enough beds.
If word gets out on the street that help isn’t available after all, Faris said, the whole endeavor could become “a false promise.”