‘To Protect and To Serve’ — A Police Chief Treats Drug Addiction Differently

Police officers promise “to protect and to serve.” But how can they do either when the people they vow to serve engage in actions that endanger themselves, their communities, and their families?

Crimes related to drug addiction fall into that category. When someone who’s addicted to drugs is arrested, he or she often faces incarceration, fines, and probation — but rarely is required to undergo treatment.

A New Approach

One chief of police — Leonard Campanello of Gloucester, Mass. — is trying a different plan of attack on the blight of addiction. The department recently began a program through which people who request addiction treatment will receive help rather than jail time. Eligible people who come to police seeking recovery will work with a clinician on a treatment plan. A volunteer “angel” stays with the patient throughout the process for support.

Campanello also traveled in May to Washington, D.C., to lobby for increased funding for programs designed to help people with addictions turn their lives around. Additionally, his department will provide anyone who doesn’t have insurance with addiction treatment drug narcan, also known as naloxone. The drug is used to treat opiate overdose.

Campanello isn’t alone in encouraging a different perspective on efforts to deal with addiction. A Pew Research Center poll indicates that an increasing number of Americans believe addiction is a brain disease that should be treated, rather than a crime that calls for punishment.

The Right Combination

Statistics suggest the nation’s decades-old “war on drugs” has taken a dramatic toll, in both financial cost and incarceration rates. More than $51 billion is spent in the U.S every year in the war on drugs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a coalition that encourages drug policies “grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.” Additionally, the group says, 1.5 million people were arrested on nonviolent drug charges in 2013, contributing to the country’s status as having the highest incarceration rate in the world.

But jailing people who have drug addictions doesn’t address the root of the problem. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, incarceration alone for drug-related crime is remarkably ineffective at reducing the likelihood of an inmate’s returning to drug use — and to the other crimes their drug use might lead to — upon release. Treatment programs without the regular supervision of a judge proved likewise ineffective. The course of action most successful at preventing a return to drug-related crime proved to be combination of court-ordered treatment in addition to any warranted penalties.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration similarly endorses therapeutic intervention through drug courts over incarceration. Sending someone who has an addiction to drug court helps prevent the revolving door syndrome, in which “judges see the same defendants so often they’re practically on a first-name basis,” as SAMHSA describes it.

Cheers to Chief Campanello for looking for ways to stop the doors from continuing to revolve.

There is still hope.

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