Learning from our neighbors to the south on drug policing

  • Orange Police Chief Craig Lundgren

Published: 2/9/2019 5:11:48 PM
Modified: 2/9/2019 5:11:48 PM

Since it formed roughly five years ago, the Regional Opioid Task Force has consistently led the effort in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region to turn back the national addiction epidemic’s causes and effects in our community.

Sadly, the task force is becoming something of a permanent feature of our society as we learn just how tenacious and pervasive opioid addiction is. We have learned over the past few years that the pernicious grip heroin and related painkillers have on the biochemistry of the brain seems almost impossible to break.

Combating addiction requires the persistent effort of the whole community.

That includes our criminal justice system. It requires the courts and police to adapt their role from arrest and punish to hold and help.

That’s why were glad to see the Opioid Task Force this past week convene a panel of law enforcement officials for a discussion on public safety, behavioral health and community response to drug overdoses. About 70 people attended the session, which was encouraging because everyone has to be on board, especially the police.

The majority of the conversation revolved around new policing models — specifically, the one that Northampton police use that gets people who are struggling with addiction into treatment that is relevant to them individually, instead of just immediately sending them to the hospital or trying to figure out where the person got their drugs.

Police chiefs from the Franklin County and North Quabbin region saw ideas they can employ in Northampton’s Drug Addiction & Recovery Teams. The DART officers go out to calls to help get people the medical and recovery services they need — so they can more likely break the cycle of jail to drugs to jail and, instead, find recovery.

In particular, this approach caught the attention of Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh and police chief for the Orange and Athol departments’ Craig Lundgren.

Lundgren said the day was educational for him, as he learned about new approaches to policing that could help reduce opioid overdose deaths and lead to more fulfilling treatment for people in the community.

Haigh noted the work they are beginning to do in Greenfield the past couple years, mostly led by Deputy Chief Mark Williams.

In Greenfield, about 75 percent of the officers have been trained on the Crisis Intervention Team, which is a model backed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and intended to help police work better with the community they serve, particularly those with mental health or addiction challenges.

“Northampton is obviously working far in advance of us, but we have a goal to follow that lead,” Haigh said.

Hearing these officers showed what a cultural shift has taken place in the local police approach to addiction.

“I have officers now who would be a better social worker, and that’s a good thing,” Haigh said.

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper noted, “When I came on, we locked people up for needles, for pot, for heroin.”

The Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, a co-founder of the Task Force, noted that a “positive relationship with police and people in the community, especially those with addiction issues ... can really help prevent overdoses and save lives.”

He hopes other departments will be able to broaden their approach to substance abuse, perhaps following the DART model.

If it is as effective at preventing fatal overdoses and resetting people’s lives, then we are thrilled to see other local departments inspired to advance their efforts in this area.

Sullivan was exactly right when he said “keeping people on board with recovery is important, and this program is a part of the overall puzzle of addiction, and it’s really positive.”

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