In May last year, Gloucester Police Department Chief Leonard Campanello announced on social media that he had made a radical decision – amnesty for drug users who enroll in treatment - spurred by four heroin overdose deaths in the first three months of 2015, matching the previous year’s total number of overdose deaths. Like other cities throughout New England, the small coastal community of Gloucester, Massachusetts which is home to under 30,000 residents has witnessed the gradual transition from synthetic opioids to heroin. A former narcotics officer in the community of Saugus, Essex County, Campanello has served as Gloucester’s police chief for 4 years and has been honored as a Champion of Change by the White House. In the May 2015 Facebook post, he encouraged drug users to seek treatment, pleading with them “ Let us help you”.
Chief Campanello's visionary and trailblazing heroin-crisis strategy, stemming from nothing more than his perceived responsibility to the community was effectively crystallized less than a month later. The chief launched the Angel Initiative on June 1st, 2015, in partnership with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative ( PAARI), a non-profit organization co-founded by Chief Leonard Campanello and Boston business developer John Rosenthal who referred to the Angel program as a “ game changer”. PAARI’s mission is to aid the Angel Initiative with the necessary resources, to foster a dialogue around the life-changing opportunity for police departments to proactively fight against the disease of drug addiction that their communities are grappling with and to help them implement similar programs that steer opiate users away from the criminal justice system and toward specialized, life-saving medical treatment.
Such a radical shift in policing brought national attention to the Massachusetts city port and stirred some expected controversies. Essex District Attorney J. Blodgett said that Campanello was making choices that should be left to prosecutors. Although Chief Campanello didn't know what to expect initially, the Angel Initiative turned out to be a shining beacon of light and hope for drug users, their families and the entire community of Gloucester.
This innovative program encourages opioid users to voluntarily come to the Gloucester police station, turn in drugs and/or paraphernalia and seek treatment without facing criminal charges of drug possession. Each patient is paired with a volunteer "angel" that supports them in their decision to undergo treatment and walks them through the admitting process. The first patient was Steve Lesnikoski, a cross-country arrival from San Jose, California. As of June 1st, 2016, 452 opioid addicts had made their way to the police station in Gloucester.
In the context of drug overdose deaths reaching their highest point in history in 2014 ( according to the most recent CDC statistics) that challenged the traditional approach to tackling drug dependence and the unprecedented increase fueled by the skyrocketing use of prescription pain relievers and illicit drugs like heroin especially among young whites, the authorities had to devise completely different strategies. According to the most recent CDC statistics, 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the US during 2014, with 61% involving some type of opioids, including heroin.
Chief Campanello's brainchild, built upon his well-known refrain that the war on drugs had been lost continues to inspire law enforcement agencies across the nation to follow in Gloucester Police Department's footsteps, stop treating heroin users as criminals and offer them the opportunity to get specialized help without facing arrest. Versions of the Angel program are now modeled by 120 law enforcement agencies in 28 states. The agencies are tapping into a network of over 200 treatment center programs; an estimated 2,000 addicts across the nation have already been taken in by some forms of the Angel Initiative. Half a dozen New Hampshire and Maine police departments recently partnered with PAARI to launch the Addiction Recovery Initiative.