The opioid crisis: Northampton police aim to help addicts before it’s too late

By Chief Jody D. Kasper
For the Gazette
Tuesday, September 27, 2016

I’ve been a police officer for nearly 20 years and things have changed a lot during that time. Without a doubt one of the biggest changes that I have witnessed is how the community responds to people facing drug addiction.

Years ago, we had little tolerance for people who were addicted to heroin or other illegal substances. When these individuals committed crimes we focused on what they did and ignored why they did it. Other sectors of the criminal justice system (and sometimes people’s family and friends) did the same. Not only did many people ignore the motivation for criminal behavior, there was a terrible stigma associated with people addicted to drugs.

Over time we realized these attitudes were improving nothing. The same people committed the same crimes, sometimes overdosed, sometimes died, and the cycle continued. Individuals and communities struggled to deal with the toll these addictions took on everyone — those struggling with addiction, their loved ones and the wider society.

The number of overdoses climbed and the number of overdose-related deaths climbed with it. We saw this on a national level. We see it here in our local communities. People began to recognize that this growing problem was not going away and was instead getting worse. It became clear that change was necessary in order to effectively battle this epidemic.

This is how the Northampton Police Department responded: All of our officers carry nasal naloxone (narcan.) They have received training on substance addiction and de-stigmatization. We have more resources at our fingertips to provide to people in need of addiction services.

In May 2015, I joined the executive board for Hampshire Heroin/Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE). As part of that coalition I learned about the issue in depth and began to reflect on how our police department could better aid individuals who were struggling with addiction. We determined that our community first responders, including NPD and members of Northampton Fire Rescue, had persuasive information for people at the highest risk of dying from substance use.

Here is a typical scenario that might have unfolded until about a year ago: When people overdose, they often — and always should — call 911 for medical assistance. This brings a response from police and an ambulance. Thanks to effective Good Samaritan laws, which state that people calling for help with an overdose will not be prosecuted for possessing a drug, no one at the scene has to worry about getting in trouble if drugs and drug paraphernalia are present. Our top priority is saving the life of the person who has overdosed. When our responders arrive at the scene they can administer nasal naloxone. This life-saving drug can work quickly and in many cases the person will regain consciousness shortly after the drug is administered. At that time the patient is typically transported to the hospital and later released. In the past, that was that, the end of our contact with the person.

In August of 2015 I was reading the daily police call log and saw that we had responded to a particular address for an overdose. As I was reading the report I heard my radio tone out a medical call to the same address for the same individual. He had overdosed again, twice in 24 hours. It seemed that we had missed an opportunity to intervene. We knew he was at high risk after the first overdose.

I began to think about what more we might have done. This incident spurred further discussion at our department about how we could better assist people who have overdosed. It was out of these conversations that the Drug Abuse Response Team (DART) was born.

Through this program, officers with specialized training in substance abuse and connections to the resources available reach out to people after they’ve overdosed. Three of our patrol officers, Justin Hooten, Adam Van Buskirk and Monica Czerwinski, volunteered to serve as DART officers while on their regular patrol duties. They come into work, read the log, identify high-risk individuals, and try to find them. Once a connection is made they talk with the person they provide contact numbers and names of resources. They may even drive the individual to a particular facility. The DART officers check in with these individuals over time to see how they are and to encourage them to stay focused on recovery.

We know that the road to recovery is not as simple as one trip to a clinic. We also know one trip could be the first step toward long-term recovery.

 

Police Chief Jody Kasper is the top law enforcement officer at the Northampton Police Department, A member of Hampshire HOPE’s executive board, she is one of several individuals who contribute to a monthly column in this space about local efforts underway to address the opioid epidemic.