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Plymouth County Police Try A New Approach To The Opioid Crisis

Plymouth County Police Try A New Approach To The Opioid Crisis

The Plymouth Police Department helped host a vigil at New Hope Chapel for those lost to opioid addiction.
Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH News
Plymouth County Police Try A New Approach To The Opioid Crisis

Across the country, the opioid crisis is hurting communities and families.

The toll is particularly evident in Plymouth County. So far this year, more than 1,000 people have overdosed.

On a recent night, melodious tunes filtered out from New Hope Chapel in Plymouth. About 100 people had gathered to remember those lost to opioids. With cell phone lights swaying, and people dabbing tears from their eyes, those in attendance sang and watched a slide show of community members who had recently died.

Dave and Judy McCarthy came because of a phone call they’d received nearly a year ago from the hospital – it was about their daughter.

"Oh my gosh. It was 1:07 a.m.,” remembers Judy McCarthy, who’d been awakened by the call. The person on the other end of the line said: “‘I have some bad news.’”

Holding back tears, Judy McCarthy recounted learning that their daughter had died. “It was the worst phone call of my life."

Dave and Judy McCarthy lost their middle daughter to an opioid overdose
Gabrielle Emanuel

After getting painkillers for two back operations, their middle daughter, Colleen, had become addicted to opioids. Before she died of an overdose, Dave McCarthy says they knew their daughter was struggling, but they didn’t know where to turn for help.

“You know what would be nice? To know someone cares that has an official status,” he said.

Some police departments are trying to change the perception that they don't care – and change their tactics in addressing the opioid crisis.

Captain John Rogers of the Plymouth Police Department has worked in law enforcement for 33 years. He has spent much of his career going after drugs, and he acknowledges the police haven’t always been sympathetic.

“It’s tough. A lot of police officers think if someone is foolish enough to stick a needle of poison in their arm, then, that’s what it is.”

But, Rogers says, over the past few years there’s been a collective realization that the opioid crisis is “not something we can arrest our way out of."

As officers realize that substance use disorder, as it is now called, is a medical condition, they’re changing their approach.

The Plymouth Police Department helped host the vigil in New Hope Church, and they host regular drop-in centers, where those addicted to opioids – and their families – can come to gather information and get connected to treatment programs.

But local police have gone even further. All 27 police departments in Plymouth County have teamed up to share information about overdoses. This past summer they developed their first real-time database of who needs help.

Roger says the database includes basic information about an overdose: “the name, where it happened, where they were transported to as far as a hospital facility. Anything like that.”

Then, the police departments have committed to sending a plainclothes officer to visit the person’s home within 24 hours.

“We would knock on the door. ‘Hi, Plymouth Police. We understand Jimmy, Johnny, Debbie overdosed last night,’” Rogers says about a typical home visit.

The police are not there to arrest anyone. Instead, they are there to offer resources for recovery. They’ve partnered with local healthcare providers such that each officer goes on home visits with a clinician or recovery coach.

Sergeant William Patterson, of the East Bridgewater Police, often does home visits. He says going within the 24-hour window is important: “It has to be a quick turnaround. These people are in crisis. They need help. And we want to go out and support them.”

Patterson says that right after a nonfatal overdose, some victims tell them not to swing by the next day. But, he says, they go anyway – and they haven’t been turned away.

“We’ve never been told, ‘Hey, I don’t want to talk to you.’ ”

Some visits are just five minutes, while others last an hour or more.

While there isn’t data from the whole county yet, about 85% of the people the Plymouth Police have visited accepted some kind of services. That’s anything from a bed in a detox facility to enrolling in treatment.

During the home visit, they will help call around for a bed, figure out insurance coverage and, even, give a ride to a treatment facility if that’s necessary.

East Bridgewater Police Chief Scott Allen says collaborating with all the other police departments in the county has solved a major problem.

He says for years they had an inkling that ‘half of the overdoses in the city of Brockton were not from Brockton. They are from the surrounding suburbs, but there was no formal notification system or collaboration where we could share that information.”

Allen says with the county-wide initiative – called Plymouth County Outreach – they’ve solved this issue. Preliminary results suggest that in 45 percent of the overdoses in Plymouth County, “the victims don’t overdose in the town they live in, but in a neighboring town.”

“Now, we can connect with our neighbor police department and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so overdosed in our town today.’ So their outreach team can be activated,” says Allen.

Rogers, of Plymouth Police, says he’s hoping that spending money on outreach now saves both money and lives down the line.

“If someone is breaking into someone’s home, it’s probably due to some addiction they’re trying to feed,” Rogers says. “Quite frankly, if we can curb the addiction problem, we can probably reduce the crime problem.”

But when Sloane goes out, she’s not thinking about future crime rates. She’s thinking about saving lives.

Sloane, who asked that her last name not be used, is a recovery coach at Baystate Community Services.

She started doing drugs at age 13, and got clean in her 30s. Now, instead of running from police, she volunteers her time to go with them on visits to people who've recently overdosed.

 “I talked to them the same way I would talk to anybody,” Sloane says. “I kind of give them my story because I lived it, I did it.”

People are usually offered treatment services immediately after an overdose at the hospital, but, Sloane says, they're often too freaked out to accept. So, going by the next day and talking to them at home, where they're comfortable, can be more successful.

Sloane says she wishes police and social services had more bandwidth to follow up again in a week or a month, but they don’t. So, she leaves her card and tells them to call any time.

Judy and Dave McCarthy, who lost their daughter, say they’re glad that at least some officials are helping people get treatment.

“I think that’s really good,” says Judy McCarthy.

Dave agrees. “Everybody is clicking together now. I mean, it’s incredible.”

They’re not the only ones who have been impressed. Police departments and groups from across the state and the country have reached out to learn how to recreate Plymouth County’s model.

But it is only a start. The McCarthy's say the whole system to heal people addicted to opioids is in need of healing itself.

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