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More people died in Michigan due to opioid overdoses than car crashes in the past five years, state statistics show, and that’s after decades of the War on Drugs.

With the understanding that law enforcement can’t arrest its way out of the epidemic, many Michigan departments are embracing a new approach: Hope, not handcuffs.

The “Hope Not Handcuffs” program, which officially launched in Macomb County on Feb. 1, is the latest effort to combat heroin addiction and represents a softening of law enforcement’s position on handling those with addiction issues.

Addicts can walk into any police station in Macomb County, admit they have an addiction and ask for help. At that point, one of 250 “angels” — volunteers from the community who are vetted by the police — is brought in to sit with the addict as police arrange accommodations at a treatment center. Michigan State Police’s equivalent program being piloted upstate is the Angel program.

Alternative to lockups

The idea for Hope Not Handcuffs originated in June 2015 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, when then-Police Chief Leonard Campanello, once a self-described “lock ’em up type of guy” who had worked seven years in narcotics, decided a different approach was needed. Campanello approached businessman and activist John Rosenthal and together they founded PAARI, the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative, a 501c3 nonprofit.

Their work, spearheaded now by Rosenthal after Campanello resigned from the Gloucester force in October, has not only led law enforcement to view the issue differently but to offering of a number of resources for addicts that wouldn’t otherwise exist.

A former narcotics officer, Campanello said he “arrested everybody from the guy with one bag to the drug dealer with thousands of bags” of heroin.

That barely made a dent and didn’t prevent the opioid problem from reaching epidemic levels. In the first quarter of 2015, Gloucester, a town of about 28,000 according to Census figures, had six fatal opioid overdoses.

If the possibility of death wasn’t enough to dissuade heroin users, would the threat of jail or prison time?

The depth of the problem made Campanello realize it was important to address the demand side of the equation. No longer would Gloucester try to “arrest its way out” of the opioid crisis, Campanello said. Instead, it would try to help opioid addicts get help before it was too late.

“There are two outcomes for people addicted to opioids: long-term treatment, or death,” Rosenthal said.

That’s where the police come in.

“When a police chief calls a treatment center, all of a sudden there’s room,” Rosenthal said. “Bringing the conservative voice of law enforcement into this discussion has been so important.”

In Gloucester, the results have been immediate. Only two people have overdosed on opioids in the 1 1/2 years since PAARI started its work, Rosenthal said. Some 525 people have been placed into treatment programs. There has been a 30 percent reduction, he said, in “crimes associated with addiction: breaking-and-entering, smash-and-grab, shoplifting.”

On the national level, some 200 law enforcement departments in 28 states, including all departments in Macomb County, have joined the movement. Michigan State Police were the first state police department in the United States to join.

Aid, not jail

In Macomb County, Linda Davis, a judge at 41-B District Court in Clinton Township who is also president of the local branch of Families Against Narcotics, did much of the legwork in selling the program to police. That took about 18 months.

“Police were very resistant at first,” Davis said. “They had many questions. Many trainings and meetings were necessary,” but in the end, Davis said, police had grown tired of “going to the same house, for the same addict, two, three times in a row,” and were open to a new approach.

“For years and years, decades and decades, we’ve been locking people up,” said Sterling Heights Police Chief John Berg. “That helps some people, but not everybody. Now if someone asks for help, we can lead them to certified professionals in the field rather than lockup.”

What the program is not, he stressed, is a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

“If we catch you in a traffic stop, you can’t claim addiction,” Berg said. “There’s no leniency for those who are committing crimes.”

But in Sterling Heights, addicts can bring a personal amount of drugs to the station to ensure their safe disposal, Berg said.

With “the conservative voice of law enforcement” on board, as Rosenthal said, selling the program to addicts is the next challenge, and locally there has been some initial success.

As of Monday, 14 people had already been placed in treatment since the beginning of the month and “about the same amount” were headed there once police could reach treatment centers. The addicts have come in through Roseville, Ferndale, Shelby Township and online, through FAN’s website.

“One person came to us from Alpena, and another from Florida,” Davis said. “That’s a challenge, but we’ll get them placed.”

In Hope Not Handcuffs, which extends beyond Macomb into at least one police department in Wayne (Harper Woods) and Oakland (Ferndale) counties, addicts of any sort can ask for help, not just opioid addicts.

Successful placement, Davis said and others agree, is essential, because it creates a word-of-mouth buzz within the addict community that helps get them past their reservations about walking into a police station and talking about their drug problem. And as addicts come to realize that the program is not a trap, and that people actually do get help, they spread the word, Rosenthal said.

Expense is another issue that may cause some to shy away. Rosenthal said that PAARI has addressed the expense side through the 300-plus treatment centers it works with nationwide, all of which were required to offer two to 10 scholarships each.

There are also funds available to help addicts get from the police station to the treatment center without expense. And how much the person will pay for treatment, if anything, depends on their means.

In Macomb County, some 10,000 dosages of naloxone, which can halt overdoses, have been donated to participating police departments. Some of those will be made available to family members of the addicts and the addicts themselves.

“There’s no chance of getting into treatment if you’re dead,” Rosenthal said.

Campanella, who resigned from the Gloucester police force in October 2016, said he was happy to see the model he created become so widespread, but that the enormity of the problem left no time to celebrate.

“There is no achievement here, only responsibility,” Campanella said.

jdickson@detroitnews.com

Countering drugs with a drug

In 2015, police in Michigan were permitted to carry naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose. The largest police departments in the state carry it, including Michigan State Police, the Detroit Police Department and sheriff’s departments in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. In 2016, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley signed a law allowing schools in Michigan to carry the opioid antidote.

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