How the Gloucester, Massachusetts Police Are Showing That Addiction is Not a Crime

By Zachary Siegel 06/12/15

Meet Police Chief Leonard Campanello of the Angel Program.

Police Chief Leonard Campanello
Photo via

A small community on the North Shore of Massachusetts held an emergency forum last May to address a spike in local deaths directly related to overdoses involving heroin. The citizens in crisis asked the police for help and they listened. 

Instead of more futile attempts to arrest their way out of the problem, the police in Gloucester, Massachusetts decided to try something different. A helping hand, one of compassion instead of judgment and punishment, was offered. 

A new initiative, called the Angel Program, was developed in a collaborative effort by a community trying to save the lives of drug users. The revolutionary approach is as follows: 

  1. Addicts who walk into the station and ask for help will be given detox and access to treatment without any legal action.
  2. Nasal naloxone will be put in the hands of addicts, families, and caregivers to prevent overdose death. If you cannot afford it, the department will foot the bill for a dose. 
  3. If a drug user has a run-in with an officer on the streets or in the community, the officer may use discretion and refer him or her to the Angel Program.

The Angel Program has just been implemented and Chief Leonard Campanello has the details on what’s happening. 

On June 1, the Angel Program began and already there has been some action. How many people have walked into the station and asked for help? 

We’ve had four [seven since the interview took place] so far. I can’t really get into the specifics of it because of the HIPPA law. But four have gone through the program and received the treatment they were looking for. 

You were a narcotics detective for seven years, arresting drug dealers and making busts. What, in your experience, has led to feeling compassion for drug users? Not everyone has a soft spot for us. 

I think in law enforcement, in general, there’s always been compassion for the addict. The work I did at that time I’m very proud of and I’m very proud of the officers I worked with. It’s good work that needs to continue. Our position in Gloucester is that we can be part of the other side of the equation, the demand side and that’s where this initiative came from. 

Has it been difficult to establish trust among drug addicts and others in the community? 

We’re very lucky in Gloucester to have really good community relations with the public at large. So all we can really do is extend the hand of trust. Addicts are ready when they are ready and we just want to make sure that we’re there at that crucial moment when they decide it’s enough and they need to get help. 

Data shows heroin addicts are prone to relapse post-treatment. Rarely does one go around suffice. What kind of supports are set-up for people leaving the hospital or treatment facility? 

That’s something you’d have to discuss with the individual. Everybody is different and everybody needs a different level of care. Our job is not to judge. If you relapse and you want help again, come and see us and we’ll do the same thing or whatever we can. For us, it doesn’t matter how many times you relapse, we’re extending the hand, and we’re trying to make a difference in the conversation, a difference in the way we do things here at the Gloucester Police Department. We understand people aren’t perfect, we’re not in a position to judge. 

What is PAARI (Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative)? Can you talk about what that is? 

No. But if you call me in a couple weeks, I can. That’s gonna be big, I’ll tell you that much. It’s not fully in place yet and it would be detrimental to talk about right now. 

What’s it like talking with these big pharmaceutical and insurance companies? They seem to be buying-in and providing support in terms of treatment and providing naloxone. 

We’re at a level right now where we’re taking care of Gloucester. We are engaging in conversations on a state and federal level with legislators who are in the position to make changes that they feel are necessary or prudent in this regard. We’ll sit down with the insurance companies if that’s the course that this takes for the pharmaceuticals. So far, you know, we’re only four weeks into this initiative. Insurance and pharmaceutical companies are on our radar, definitely. They can very much be part of the solution to this. 

Say I’m an addict in Gloucester and I get busted on the street with a couple bags of heroin and a needle and I’m not interested in treatment or hospitals or anything like that. What happens to me? Do I get arrested? 

This is a program designed only for people who walk into the station and are ready to get help. The discretion of the officer on the street is the same as it has been before June 1. So if there is a situation like the one you described where an arrest is warranted, they’d be arrested. The District Attorney’s office has a diversionary program and that criteria must be met after the arrest.

What was the outcome of meeting with the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP)? They sought you out, yes?

Yeah, they’re great. Director Michael Botticelli is really a champion of this issue and is really interested in exploring new initiatives and getting everybody on the same page and going in the right direction. His policy team was in the meeting and we spoke for about an hour, hour and a half. His office has been in touch since then and going forward they can put together some policy that works with us. 

Pretty remarkable the progress this initiative has made in such a short time. What’s the role of social media been for the department? Ideas spread differently nowadays. 

I think the provocative nature comes from the fact that a particularly conservative entity such as law enforcement is willing to change their thought process in order to address a social problem. Also, that we’re willing to recognize that addiction in itself is not a crime, it’s a disease and that we can be part of the solution on the demand side as well. 

We think that social media has been our friend in this. It has allowed us to count numbers a lot better. Our own Facebook page has had two million hits on this particular issue. We had 500,000 two days ago when the program began. We know that those Facebook hits today were signatures on our referendum yesterday. We know that the power of social media is huge in this and it gives us a real understanding of how big this issue is. 

With all that attention in mind, do you think this program is replicable in a big city that would require a lot of resources to do what your department is doing? 

We are not trying to set a national model here. We’re not trying to say what’s good for other communities. We’re basically saying what works for Gloucester. We listened to the citizens of the city to see how they wanted their police department to react to this crisis and came up with this plan. I think that each law enforcement entity in any city has to do the same thing, listen to what the citizens are saying, that’s pretty much how we work, that the police are the people and the people are the police. If all communities stick to that then police can be part of the conversation on the demand side in every community. 

Are there barriers to divert funds seized in drug investigations? I know some of that money has been allotted for naloxone to those who cannot afford it. 

They adjudicate drug cases and if there are assets involved those are split on a federal level and a state level and the municipalities get that money back. There’s a wide range of law enforcement use for that money and we’ve made a conscious decision here in the city to use a portion of that money for addiction and recovery efforts. It doesn’t cost the taxpayers anything. It doesn’t come out of the city budget. It comes out of drug dealers’ pockets and into the hands of people who need life-saving medication.  

So someone with no money can walk into a pharmacy and get naloxone, which would then be billed to the department? 

Yeah, that’s there for people who can’t afford to pay for it. 

Some big pharmacies are on board with the distribution of naloxone now. 

CVS, Walgreens, also a local Conley’s so far. 

How do you plan to measure the success or outcomes of the program? It began because people left and right were dying from heroin/opiate overdose. Will you look to mortalities going down? What do you think the outcomes will look like? 

Again, this is all on a scale for Gloucester. At this point, if we can reduce recidivism rates with people who go through this program and get them in treatment right away, we’ll measure that. We won’t have large enough data to look at mortality on a large scale, we’re a city of 27,000 people. I do know that there is interest in replicating and studying this particular program and its effects in both the short and long term. 

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one its members and interviewed Ethan Nadelmann. Follow him on twitter.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.