What is so refreshing about Police Chief Campenello's approach described below - is his attention to the immediate need before him - a person suffering from drug addiction. His department provides a guiding angel 'on the spot.' Smart cities are about smart techologies and about city deparments being willing to change their approaches to the problems they face. More people die in the U.S. every year from drug overdoses than from automobile accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As a former military prosecutor, I applaud the police adopting a compassionate approach that helps those in need now, not later (often after punishment.)
Old war on drugs is lost
Those tragic statistics are not lost on Gloucester, MA Police Chief Leonard Campanello, who in a Facebook post last spring declared the old war on drugs a failure and announced an about-face in how law enforcement traditionally deals with addicts.
"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," the chief wrote in a post shared more than 30,000 times and seen by 2.4 million people. "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."
In other words, Chief Campanello's department is treating drug addiction as a disease, not a crime or moral failing. That approach stemmed from a town forum about the escalating heroin epidemic, where community members said they wanted addicts treated with compassion, according to a New York Times article.
The article also notes that since the Gloucester Angel program's inception less than a year ago, 391 addicts have turned themselves in – some more than once -- and all have been placed in treatment. The department has developed a nationwide network of some 200 treatment centers willing to take police referrals and provide beds, regardless of whether the addict has insurance.
Is this the right approach?
“This has the potential to be a disruptive innovation that changes the picture of how we deal with the disease,” said David Rosenbloom in the Times article. Rosenbloom is a professor of health policy and management at the Boston University School of Public Health.
But not everyone is supportive. One district attorney suggested Campanello doesn't have the authority to take the law into his own hands and offer amnesty for the crime of heroin possession. Another raised questions about selective enforcement of drug laws.
Supporters argue that police have discretion in making arrests.
And police across the country have taken notice of what Gloucester is doing. The Times reports that 56 departments in 17 states have started programs modeled after or inspired by Gloucester's, and another 110 are preparing to do so. A chief in one Boston-area city credited Campanello with "out-of-the-box thinking" while Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken called it a fantastic program. "If we arrested every single addict," she said, "they’d just be back on the street."