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Scarborough Police: Drug Addicts Seeking Treatment Won't be Charged with Crime

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — The Scarborough Police Department announced this week that it's taking action to get people addicted to opiates into treatment.

The department is following the lead of the Angel Program in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that has gained national attention since it started in June.

The idea is to encourage those struggling with addiction to actively seek help from police without the fear of being charged with a crime.

Other Maine police departments are considering adopting similar programs.

When a police officer confronts someone with an addiction, says Scarborough police Officer John Gill, it's often under the worst possible circumstances — when the person is the victim of a crime or is a suspect.

"And it's hard for officers to see the person that's really behind that addiction," he says. "What's possible in recovery, how that person would be different in recovery."

But as Gill witnessed an uptick in crimes relating to opiate addiction over the past several months, he wondered what else police could do to address the problem.

When the Gloucester, Massachusetts, Police Department unveiled its program to connect addicts to treatment last spring, Gill thought they were onto something. That was the genesis for Scarborough Police Department's Operation Hope program, which will launch Oct. 1.

"Somebody can walk in the door and say, 'I need help,'" he says. "If they have drugs with them or needles, the officer will take them for disposal. We'll get rid of them safely so they're not on the streets, and the person won't be charged with the crime of drug possession."

It may sound simple, but it's an important shift in the relationship between law enforcement and those struggling with addiction, says Scarborough Police Chief Robert Moulton.

"I'm not sure there was the trust in the addiction community that they would dare walk into a police station and say I've got a problem — particularly if they're using," he says. "But also, we just didn't have the knowledge of what to do in that situation."

The effort will include training with clinicians and those in recovery to educate police officers about addiction. And there's a partnership with the Portland Recovery Community Center, a peer-run organization that supports individuals recovering from addiction.

Program Manager Steve Cotreau says the recovery center will provide the Scarborough police with so-called angels.

"So the angel will go in and match the person to the appropriate level of treatment and then work out the transportation to that facility, whether that's in Portland, or Florida, or California," he says.

Other police departments in Maine are planning similar programs. Augusta Police Chief Robert Gregoire hopes to unveil a program in November that's also modeled after Gloucester's, but it has required a lot of planning and coordination with the district attorney, hospitals and treatment centers.

"Police play a very small part," he says. "It's finding those inpatient or outpatient beds or services for the people we bring into this program."

Finding treatment beds is one of the biggest challenges for these programs. Cotreau says many people who need treatment are uninsured or underinsured.

Last month, he says he spent hours on the phone trying to find treatment for a man with insurance. But the plan didn't cover detox, so he had to do an online fundraising campaign.

"Once you turn somebody away from treatment, that door for them might not open again," Cotreau says. "That willingness, that readiness. Because once you're trapped in the cycle and deep in the cycle, there are few moments where people sort of come out of that."

Gill says since Operation Hope was announced this week, various entities have come forward to offer support to the program, which is funded through donations.

Liberty Bay Recovery Center in Portland will allocate three beds to the program, and out-of-state treatment facilities may offer beds as well.

Gill says he still worries that the police won't be able to help every person who needs it.

"But at least they're going to walk out of here paired up with somebody intent on getting them help, and knowing that somebody cares," he says.

Gregoire says that a uniform, statewide approach would be most beneficial for both police and those who need treatment for addiction.