The conditions to launch a program to connect heroin and opiate addicts to treatment resources without the threat of incarceration will never be perfect, Scarborough Police Department Patrol Officer John Gill said to a crowd of law enforcement officials, LincolnHealth representatives, and community members at the Skidompha Library in Damariscotta Jan. 20.
Months could be spent holding meetings and having debates with the details of the program never fully ironed out and the questions never completely answered.
In the meantime, people are dying, Gill said – a stark reality that pushed the Scarborough Police Department to launch Operation HOPE, for Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort, 73 days after it was first proposed.
Jan. 20 was the third meeting, organized by Sen. Chris Johnson, to discuss launching an Operation HOPE-esque outreach effort to addicts in Lincoln County, an initiative top law enforcement officials said they are committed to.
Gill and Portland Recovery Community Center Manager Steve Cotreau explained the nuts and bolts of the program that has connected 107 heroin and opiate addicts to long-term treatment facilities since the program launched in October 2015.
With the program demystified, the next step will be for law enforcement to determine what incarnation of Operation HOPE makes sense for Lincoln County, Johnson said – a rural county with limited treatment resources and public transportation options.
Scarborough’s Operation HOPE was loosely based on the Angel Initiative of the Gloucester Police Department in Gloucester, Mass., a program launched in a similar fit of desperation over spiking overdose rates, Gill said.
Frustrated by a series of overdose deaths in a short amount of time, Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello announced what has been described as a radical new approach to the war on drugs – the department would connect heroin and opiate addicts to treatment and recovery resources in lieu of incarceration.
The approach caught-on and, in addition to instituting the program at the Gloucester Police Department, Campanello founded the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, PAARI, to help other police departments institute similar programs.
There were unique challenges to instituting a program in Maine, Gill said, with in-patient treatment facilities in Maine sparse and a large portion of people seeking treatment for their addiction uninsured. There were also unique factors that contributed to Operation HOPE’s success, such as Scarborough’s access to the Portland Recovery Community Center, a peer-run facility that offers community-based supports to recovering addicts.
The initial meeting between the police department and peers at the community center broke down barriers, solidified the department’s commitment to the program, and contributed to Operation HOPE’s success, Gill said.
The Portland Recovery Community Center has served as an important partner in the program, organizing volunteers, or “Angels”, to identify placements for addicts eligible for the program. Scarborough has amassed a cadre of 60 Angels, many already trained in recovery coaching, through their partnership with the community center.
Unlike previously believed, the Angels in Operation HOPE do not provide transportation to addicts seeking treatment, or act like a sponsor in a 12-step program. Angels are encouraged to maintain strict boundaries and, due to the liability and safety issues involved, not provide transportation or have after-hour contact with addicts seeking treatment.
Scarborough police officers conduct the initial screening of addicts who arrive at the department seeking treatment to determine if they are eligible for the program. Once an individual is deemed eligible, an Angel is paged to the department who then begins the process of identifying a placement.
The treatment options addicts are connected to through Operation HOPE are long-term in-patient treatment facilities oftentimes located out of state. Operation HOPE has sent people to treatment facilities in California, Arizona, and Florida, amongst other states; a necessity due to the long wait times at the almost non-existent in-patient facilities in Maine, Gill said.
Operation HOPE focuses on placing individuals in in-patient treatment facilities, due to the toxicity of their surroundings and the limited success individuals have had breaking free from an addiction that has infiltrated every corner of their life, including their housing situation and social circle, Cotreau said.
The program covers the cost of transportation to the in-patient facility and Angels attempt to negotiate scholarships and other arrangements with the facilities so individuals without insurance are accepted.
There are no tax-payer funds involved in the program, Gill said.
A social service organization serves as a fiduciary agent for Operation HOPE, which is funded through charitable donations, and reimburses the police department for any costs accrued as a result of the program.
Operation HOPE was a 24-hour a day program when it launched, but the hours were quickly reduced to walk-in hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., due to the difficulty in finding placements for individuals after-hours, Gill said.
The Scarborough Police Department is located approximately 20 minutes from the airport, enabling easy transportation to out-of-state facilities, Gill said, which is a proximity Lincoln County does not share.
The incarnation of Operation HOPE in Lincoln County is still to be determined, however, law enforcement officials are committed to pushing ahead with the creation of a program that would connect people to treatment before their addiction results in death or incarceration.
Lincoln County Sheriff Todd Brackett lobbied for the formation of a committee with community partners to move the program forward before the Jan. 20 meeting had even drawn to a close.
The meeting also sparked discussion of the need for safe, drug-free housing for people in recovery in Lincoln County, so they are able to change their living pattern and social circle while still remaining in the community, Johnson said.
For years, the Boothbay Harbor Police Department has independently reached out to addicts in the community in an effort to connect them to treatment and recovery resources. The department will continue the effort and will continue to distribute applications for free health and dental insurance available for low-income individuals through LincolnHealth, Boothbay Harbor Police Chief Robert Hasch said.
Hasch is encouraging former addicts who have broken through their addiction to contact the police department to share their knowledge of recovery. “We need some success stories,” Hasch said.
The room was silent on Jan. 20 when testimonials from individuals and their families who have been served by Operation HOPE were displayed by Gill. Despite the unknowns, when the program launched, Gill told himself if two people were helped by the program it would be worth it.
As of Jan. 20, the number of individuals who benefitted from the program was 107. Gill and Cotreau were notified of an additional two people who came forward seeking treatment while the meeting was taking place.