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New Boston police opioid unit focuses on treatment, not just arrests

Lieutenant Detective Brian J. Larkin, commander of the Boston Police Drug Control Unit, met with officials from other city agencies that are joining efforts to combat opioid overdoses. Jonathan Wiggs/globe staff/Globe Staff

When the Boston police opioid squad responds to a heroin overdose, officers follow standard procedure: Interview witnesses, collect evidence, start hunting down the dealer.

Then, investigators go a step further. They talk to stricken friends and family members and suggest support groups and help hot lines. If the overdose victim survives, unit members recommend rehabilitation centers and programs that teach overdose prevention, offer needle exchanges, and provide overdose-reversing drugs.

“Our mission is twofold. One is enforcement, and the second — just as important — is the recovery aspect,” said Lieutenant Detective Brian J. Larkin, commander of the Boston Police Drug Control Unit. “There’s a lot of people who have just struggled for years, and they can’t get out.”

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With its newly created opioid unit, the Boston Police Department becomes the latest agency to embrace treatment and prevention as tools of law enforcement. Gloucester’s police department has received national attention for its efforts to help addicts.

The Boston squad emerges as heroin and other opioids continue to claim dozens of lives. In the first three months of this year, 26 people in Boston died from suspected overdoses.

Of the 13 squads in the city’s drug unit, only the opioid squad focuses exclusively on one type of drug. The rest are dispersed geographically. Investigators on the squad track overdoses, build cases against dealers, and do outreach to users and their families.

“Some people need to go to jail — dealers out there polluting the system with heroin and fentanyl, they’re out for profit and they don’t care what happens to people,” Larkin said. “But there’s people out there that are truly addicted and need help.”

The emphasis on finding dealers, officials say, is designed to stanch the flow of opioids flowing onto city streets — drugs that are often cut with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin.

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“I’m hoping that we can send a message to the dealers that we’re going to come after them,” Police Commissioner William B. Evans said. “We’re going to follow the trail to you, and if need be, we’re going to prosecute.”

The opioid squad is composed of a sergeant, two detectives, and two police officers. It was formed in November, and Evans said investigators have several open cases they plan to bring to the district attorney for prosecution. Because the squad is so new — and because investigations into drug dealers can take weeks or months — statistics on arrests and prosecutions were not available.

In February, Larkin said, investigators from the unit executed a search warrant on Norfolk Street and discovered heroin, cocaine, $1,000 in cash, and a loaded semiautomatic handgun tucked into a child’s bassinet. They arrested two men.

Police are focused not just on arrests, but treatment. Larkin meets regularly with members of the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Services, which was started last year and is headed by Jen Tracey.

“This is a public health issue we’re all facing,” Tracey said.

Her office designed cards listing resources, including “PAATHS,” which provides access to care, and the overdose prevention program “AHOPE” on Albany Street, to hand out to people suffering from opioid addiction — and police shrank them down for officers and firefighters to hand out on calls. There are hundreds in circulation, officials said.

Analysts from the Boston Regional Intelligence Center at police headquarters track overdose calls coming in to 911 to watch for spikes in specific areas of the city. When a surge appears, said Devin Larkin, associate bureau director for the Addictions Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission, workers conduct outreach, walking the streets and talking with people about resources or attending meetings.

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More people are seeking help, said Larkin, who is not related to Brian Larkin. About 55 people every day walk into PAATHS or AHOPE, she said — up from about 15 a day about three years ago. There was a sharp increase this winter, she said, but there is no way to tell yet if people are coming in because of their interaction with police.

“We know that in order to solve the opiates crisis facing our city, and the entire country, we must take new and innovative approaches and focus more on better coordinated care to connect those who need help with resources,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement.

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.