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The police chief who gives amnesty to drug addicts seeking help

Chief Leonard Campanello: “The war on drugs is over. And we lost.’’
Chief Leonard Campanello: “The war on drugs is over. And we lost.’’
Published Aug. 19, 2015

The coastal Massachusetts town of Gloucester was in the middle of a quiet Friday evening this March when a phone call disturbed the police chief relaxing at home. Another deadly heroin overdose had just hit the city, the chief learned. It marked Gloucester's fourth that year. Leonard Campanello put down the phone. He turned the grim math over in his head — four deaths, three months, in a city of 30,000 people.

Then Campanello, a stout commander who more growls than talks, stood up and rumbled over to the computer. He's the sort of police chief who maintains an active presence on social media. He posts frequent "Gloucester Police Chief Updates" — episodic fireside chats delivered from his desk — to the police department's Facebook page. Most of those remarks barely ripple — a dozen 'likes' at most.

But that was about to change. "Since January of this year, we have responded to dozens of opiate-related overdoses and, unfortunately, the City has seen 4 deaths in this time that are heroin related," he wrote, adding: "4 deaths is 4 too many." Then in a moment Campanello now recalls as extemporaneous, he continued. "If you are a user of opiates or heroin, let us help you. We know you do not want this addiction. We have resources here in the City that can and will make a difference in your life. Do not become a statistic."

The response was staggering. The post collected 1,226 "likes" and more page views than there were people in the city. It was then Campanello knew he was onto something. The community, he said, was hungry for different ideas. The number of heroin-related overdoses in the United States quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, when 8,200 people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The trend has hit Massachusetts — and Gloucester — especially hard.

"The war on drugs is over," Campanello said in an interview. "And we lost. There is no way we can arrest our way out of this. We've been trying that for 50 years. We've been fighting it for 50 years, and the only thing that has happened is heroin has become cheaper and more people are dying."

So he started making calls. He got in touch with the mayor. He wanted to talk about a plan that experts say is unique across the country. It was simple, Campanello said. He didn't want to arrest more drug addicts battling what he calls the "disease of addiction." He'd been doing that for too long. Seven years he spent as a narcotics officer, watching drugs or the system swallow families.

He now wanted to turn Gloucester's police station into an oasis of amnesty in the drug addict's perilous world. No heroin addict who entered the police station seeking help — unless they had outstanding warrants — would face charges or arrest. Even if they toted their drugs and paraphernalia. Instead, they would get help. "Our argument was you don't cut off the head of the snake," he said. "You cut off its food chain."

In another Facebook post, he laid it out. "Any addict who walks into the police station with the remainder of their drug equipment (needles, etc) or drugs and asks for help will NOT be charged," he wrote. "Instead, we will walk them through the system toward detox and recovery. We will assign them an 'angel' who will be their guide through the process. Not in hours or days, but on the spot."

No one was quite sure what would happen. Think about it, said communications director John Guilfoil. The chief was asking a bunch of addicts who until that point had violated the law to suddenly walk into the police station, armed with drugs. It was crazy. It was madness. It worked.

The post collected more than 30,000 "likes," an additional 30,000 shares and millions of clicks, the chief said. Things then happened fast. The force opened a non-profit called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. Addicts started flooding the police station. And reporters arrived to a curious sight of cops greeting addicts rather than charging them.

"A reporter asked one of my officers last night, 'Do you see a common thread in all addicts?' '' one Facebook post said. "Without hesitation, the officer responded: 'Absolutely. They're all human beings.' "

The chief approached a local CVS to talk about a drug that reverses overdoses. Nasal Narcan administers a burst of a drug that binds with the brain's opiate receptors and can reverse an overdose. Without insurance, it costs $140. But Campanello told the CVS about the agency's new program, and it lowered the cost to $20 per pack. He then started providing it to the addicts for free. "The police department will pay the cost of the Nasal Narcan for those without insurance," Campanello wrote in a post. "We will pay for it with money seized from drug dealers during investigations. We will save lives with the money from the pockets of those who take them."

So far, Campanello said, 109 addicts have sought help at the police station. One in six came from out of state. Those who showed up have been young. Eighty percent of them, in fact, were younger than 30. Many later vanished into 20 centers across six states as part of what the station now calls the "Gloucester Initiative" — a non-profit that also links addicts with free detox and recovery services.

Other cities have taken note of the unusual initiative. Three cities in Massachusetts will soon launch programs based on Campanello's. The same goes for two more cities in Illinois. But for now, according to John Rosenthal, co-founder and chairman of the newly-founded non-profit, Gloucester remains the only town in the nation offering this kind of service.

It's too early to determine the program's success. But it's not too early, Campanello said, to hope. Heroin killed four Gloucester residents in the first three months. How many have died since? Campanello was fast with the answer. "Just two," he said.