‘Angel’ opioid initiative thrives despite exit of Gloucester police chief
As Gloucester police chief, Leonard Campanello pledged in 2015 that drug users could walk into the police station, hand over heroin, and walk out into treatment within hours — without arrest or charges. The concept of help rather than handcuffs became a national sensation.
But when Campanello left office in October, under fire for allegedly lying to city investigators probing complaints by two women against him, questions arose about the future of a program propelled in part by Campanello’s outsize personality.
“It created some uncertainty,” said John Rosenthal, a Boston-area developer and activist who is fighting the opioid epidemic.
Campanello no longer plays a role in the city’s Angel Program — the state attorney general’s office is reviewing the case that led to his ouster — but the uncertainty has been dispelled. Not only is the program humming along in Gloucester, but the approach has been adopted by 200 police agencies in 28 states.
“It puts police in the lifesaving business instead of the spin-drying business of arresting and releasing,” Rosenthal said. “We estimate that approximately 10,000 people have been placed into treatment.”
Across the country, the Gloucester model is being promoted through a nonprofit network co-founded by Rosenthal and Campanello. That organization -- the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative -- has been joined by law-enforcement agencies from California to Maine.
The newest members will include all 26 police and sheriff’s departments in Macomb County, Mich., a populous county close to Detroit.
“The police have changed the conversation,” said Rosenthal, who was on hand in December when former President Barack Obama signed a bill that approved $1 billion to combat the opioid crisis. “This is a conservative entity that has realistically concluded that you cannot arrest your way out of this public-health epidemic.”
So far, Gloucester has logged 530 cases in which drug users sought help at the station since the program began June 1, 2015, according to interim Police Chief John McCarthy. Many are from outside the city.
Steve Lesnikoski, the first person to ask for help under the program, had been a heroin addict living in his car in San Jose, Calif., when he read about the fledgling program on social media. Soon, he was headed east, still high on heroin. A stranger from Danvers picked him up at Logan Airport and gave him a ride to the Gloucester station, where he arrived at 3:30 a.m. on a rainy and foggy night.
The police then drove him to Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester, where he waited until short-term space became available in a nearby detox facility. Longer treatment followed in California.
Lesnikoski, who now lives in Swampscott, has been clean for nearly 18 months. Without the Gloucester program, Lesnikoski said, “I’d probably be in jail or dead.”
McCarthy said fatal overdoses in Gloucester declined last year -- to three confirmed and four possible deaths -- from 10 confirmed fatalities in 2015. In addition, drug arrests fell in the last half of 2016. Of 57 arrests for the year, only 13 occurred from July through December, he said.
Although the chief could not make a direct connection between that decline and the Angel Program, a study by Boston University and Boston Medical Center found startling results in its first year.
In 417 cases where a person who visited the Gloucester police station was eligible for treatment, police data showed that 94.5 percent were offered direct placement and 89.7 percent enrolled in detox or other recovery services, according to Dr. Davida Schiff, a BMC pediatrician who was lead researcher in the study.
Those numbers, reported in December by the New England Journal of Medicine, compared with less than 60 percent of direct referrals from hospital-based programs, which recruit patients who visit emergency rooms with substance-abuse disorders, Schiff said.
“Half of the sample had been previously arrested for drugs,’’ Schiff said of the Gloucester study. “This is really remarkable and speaks to how broken our treatment system is” when opioid users feel more comfortable approaching police rather than hospitals for help.
Thirty police departments in Massachusetts now belong to PAARI, the acronym for the umbrella group founded by Rosenthal and Campanello. The organization also receives a boost from treatment providers who provide “scholarships,” or free service, for some users who lack insurance or cannot pay.
Each police department in PAARI can customize its approach. In Arlington, help at the station is supplemented by officers and a social worker who visit known addicts at their homes. If the door knock is answered, users are offered the drug Narcan, which reverses opioid overdoses, and advice about treatment options.
Arlington had averaged approximately one fatal drug overdose a month for about a year beginning in mid-2014, Chief Frederick Ryan said. Since launching the outreach program, the fatality number has fallen by more than half.
Ryan said Arlington police diverge from the Gloucester model by not promoting their program as one where opioids and drug paraphernalia are accepted without fear of arrest or criminal charges.
“We didn’t feel comfortable with an absolute no-arrest” policy, Ryan said.
McCarthy said few users have brought heroin and other opioids to the Gloucester station, but staff with the Essex District Attorney’s Office reiterated a stance that police do not have the discretion to ignore state law.
“That amounts to a promise of amnesty, if you will, and they don’t have the legal authority to grant amnesty,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, spokeswoman for District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
“There’s no problem with police helping people getting into treatment, but it’s bringing in something illegal. Possession of heroin is a crime in Massachusetts,” Monahan said.
Blodgett also has praised Gloucester’s efforts to reach out to drug users. The fishing port has long struggled with an addiction problem, and the old strategies were not working as new demons -- including fentanyl-laced heroin -- made the scourge deadlier.
For Rosenthal, who lost a nephew to a fentanyl overdose, the shift from arrest to treatment is overdue.
“Little did I know when I founded PAARI to help save people’s lives from this horrific disease of opioid addiction, that in eight months I’d be burying my oldest nephew,” he said. “Now, I’m even more motivated.”