Munir Atalla / NBC News
Not so long ago, that remark would have been considered blasphemy. But that was before drug overdoses
soared to their highest point in history in 2014, the last year for which statistics are available. The increase was fueled by a surge in use of heroin and prescription painkillers, including a dramatic jump among young whites. That development challenged old notions, and biases, about opiate addiction, and prompted authorities to come up with new strategies.
“Heroin is now a white problem, is really what it boils down to,” said John Urquhart, sheriff of King County, Washington, which includes Seattle. “It’s in middle America, upper-class America. It’s in the suburbs, it’s in the high schools. That’s what has gotten America’s attention. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.”
His agency was among the first to embrace an experimental program developed five years ago in Seattle in which officers hold off arresting low-level drug offenders in order to get them treatment. The city became a leader in the movement after police came under fire for targeting minorities in drug crackdowns. The department asked its critics what it could do to avoid a costly lawsuit, and their answer was to give officers the option to divert offenders into a program that could help them confront their addictions. Early studies indicate that participants are
less likely to commit more crimes and that the city is saving money.
Other cities, including Santa Fe, New Mexico, Albany, New York, and Huntington, West Virginia, have adopted the program, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. It’s also been praised by the Obama administration as a potential model for correcting mistakes of the past.
“Part of what had made it previously difficult to emphasize treatment over the criminal justice system had to do with the fact that the populations affected in the past were viewed as — or stereotypically identified as —poor, minority,” Obama said in a March panel on the opioid epidemic. “And, as a consequence, the thinking was it is often a character flaw in those individuals who live in those communities and it’s not our problem they’re just being locked up.”
Chuck Wexler, who runs the Police Executive Research Forum, stressed that police still need to focus on going after dealers and high-level traffickers.
But he said there is a growing acknowledgment among law enforcement authorities that getting people help for their addictions can do more to cut crime than simply putting them in jail. And in some cities, he said, overdoses are outpacing murders.
“It is a recognition that the epidemic of overdoses required police to look at it from a public health standpoint as well as a law enforcement standpoint,” he said.
David Rosenbloom, a professor at Boston University’s School of Public Health who is tracking the results of Gloucester’s program, said it will take years to understand how well it — and others — work, because addiction is a chronic condition that can be managed, like diabetes. Campanello says his department has so far referred more than 400 people to treatment.
“We’re seeing short term tends that are favorable in terms of lower rates of recidivism but it’s very hard to draw conclusions,” Rosenbloom said.
Campanello said that one of the first things he does when talking to addicts and their families is apologize.
“I say that, you know, ‘We’re sorry, as a law enforcement community, if we’ve treated you or your loved ones with less dignity, respect and compassion that you deserved. That’s not our place. And we shouldn’t have done it. And we hope to move on from that point, that we are recognizing the issue for what it is, finally, and trying something different.’ And hope’s a powerful thing.”