Helping vs. Jailing Drug Addicts: Program So Effective 200 Police Departments Adopt It

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The growing drug epidemic in the United States leaves to police the job of managing drug addicts. This usually means criminalizing their behavior and jailing them. But a former police chief in Gloucester, Massachusetts, had a better idea – to actually help drug addicts instead of throwing them behind bars. In 2015, then-Police Chief Leonard Campanello pledged that drug users could walk into the police station, hand over heroin, and walk out into treatment within hours – and without arrest or charges. The concept of help rather than handcuffs became a national sensation. As a result, the Angel Program came to be – a non-profit network of community agencies called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI). “It puts police in the lifesaving business instead of the spin-drying business of arresting and releasing,” said John Rosenthal, a Boston resident fighting the opioid epidemic.

A study by Boston University and Boston Medical Center (BMC) found startling results in the program’s first year: in 417 cases where a person who visited the Gloucester police station was eligible for treatment, police data showed that 94.5 percent were offered direct placement and 89.7 percent enrolled in detox or other recovery services, according to Dr. Davida Schiff, a BMC pediatrician who was lead researcher in the study. Those numbers, reported in a December 2016 letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, compared with less than sixty percent of direct referrals from hospital-based programs, which recruit patients who visit emergency rooms with substance-abuse disorders, Schiff said. Steve Lesnikoski was the first person to get help under the program, and now, after eighteen months of being clean, he says that without the Angel Program, “I’d probably be in jail or dead.”

Similar programs have been adopted by 200 police agencies in twenty-eight states.

Source: Brian MacQuarrie, “‘Angel’ Opioid Initiative Thrives Despite Exit of Gloucester Police Chief,” Boston Globe, February 21, 2017,

Student Researcher: Amber Yang (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)