IT’S BEEN A COUPLE of months since the Village of Chatham Police Department launched CC4U, the name for a new approach to stemming the abuse of opioids. It stands for Chatham Cares for U. It’s part of a small but growing movement among police chiefs who think that driving addicts to treatment facilities is a better use of time than sending them to jail.
Does it work? Not yet. But neither has the extreme opposite of treating drug abusers as criminals. Drug courts and diversion programs do make a difference but there’s plenty of room for improvement.
Think small. Keep the number 10 in mind. That’s how many people have voluntarily sought help with drug abuse from the Chatham Police Department in the last eight weeks or so. It’s not the first place you’d think an abuser would turn. But 10 did.
If they’d been able to find other ways to overcome their addiction, they’d have had no reason to walk into the police station hoping that a cop who doesn’t know them would sit at a phone, sometimes for hours, trying to find a treatment bed and then driving them to wherever around the state (except New York City) that has an opening. But that’s what’s happened.
Chatham’s program got off to a rough start. CC4U is modeled on the original Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative created by the police chief of Gloucester, MA. Chatham Chief Peter Volkmann visited Gloucester and returned with assurances that his Massachusetts counterpart would help find vacant beds for every Chatham drug abuser who needed one. Then Chief Volkmann learned that “everything we were told was wrong” in the matter of available beds. Massachusetts might as well have been Outer Mongolia as far drug rehab beds are concerned.
Police are taught how to track down missing information and by now the Chatham force has a growing knowledge of where the recovery beds are buried. Their success makes you wonder whether the treatment center folks on the other end of those calls take a request a little more seriously when an officer of the law is doing the asking.
There is the larger question of why the police have so much to do with drug abusers in the first place. The way the state agency in charge of drug treatment programs describes it, “Addiction is a chronic, treatable illness that requires lifelong attention for sustained recovery, similar to diabetes and heart disease.” So if addiction is not a misdeed or a character flaw but instead is a sickness for which there’s a cure, then having a program like CC4U is the same as equipping police cars with portable defibrillators.
Cops need the tools to deal with situations they’ll actually face. We don’t ask our police to arrest people having a heart attack, we ask them to help save lives. Why is the illness of addiction different?
There is a distinction in that, as a mental illness, addiction is subject to all sorts of prejudices and misunderstandings not associated with physical maladies. And if you want to get drug abusers to the people who are trained to help them, it helps for the first responders to have a positive attitude, whether they’re cops or civilians. Civilians?
The CC4U program and its sister programs call them angels. Their role is to ride along with the police officer transporting drug abusers to their treatment beds. Chief Volkman calls them a “compassionate presence” in the physical transition from abuse mode to recovery. Consider them the “non-cop” in the patrol car. It’s one way for citizens to get involved without getting in the way.
Chief Volkmann knows some drug abusers aren’t ready for his program. Some have legal problems that make them ineligible. Others are sure they can handle their addiction without help. Seems logical that drug abusers would have to exhaust all their other options before asking police for help.
But if Chatham Mayor Tom Curran is right and “the word is spreading that the Chatham police can be trusted,” CC4U could become a victim of its own success, attracting more ill people than it can handle.
Increasing the number of drug abusers in recovery beds might not decrease the headcount of drug abusers in jail and it might not dent the distressingly high rate of drug dependency relapses. But so far 10 of our neighbors have been given a chance to overcome a terrible illness. In Chatham, you can thank the cops for that.