SOUTHINGTON — Town police officers could begin making fewer arrests for drug possession and more referrals for drug addiction services and other help for users.
On Monday police officials announced the town joined the Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education (HOPE) initiative along with area police departments, hospitals and addiction recovery services.
Deputy Police Chief William Palmieri said rather than an arrest and the possibility of a court-ordered treatment program, officers can decide to forgo charging someone with possession of drugs or a drug paraphernalia in lieu of referring them to services such as a recovery coach.
Hartford HealthCare and the hospital group’s Behavioral Health Network is providing the services.
“It’s not a get out of jail free card,” Palmieri said. “This gives the officer more of an option.”
Southington joined New Britain, Berlin and Newington in the effort. Palmieri said opioid addiction doesn’t discriminate between classes.
“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.
Southington police made 166 drug possession arrests in 2016 and 2017, according to FBI statistics. ‘Time is critical’
Christine Gagnon, a Southington resident, spoke in favor of the program at Monday’s press conference. Her son Michael died two years ago after having an addiction to drugs including heroin. Gagnon said access to recovery services at the right time might have saved his life. An officer providing information on treatment to an addict may do that.
“It’s widely known that if someone is asking for help, time is critical and the window is small,” Gagnon said.
Palmieri said fewer arrests of drug users may also mean more time for police to find and arrest drug dealers.
“These are the people who truly deserve to get arrested,” he said. “That’s where we need to focus our efforts.”
Pat Rehmer, Behavioral Health Network president, said there have been 44 times since November when officers declined to arrest and instead sent addicts to treatment.
“This program focuses on treatment rather than criminalization,” she said.
Southington police began carrying Naloxone, a drug that can prevent an overdose death, several years ago. Local school nurses, firefighters and EMTs are also trained to use the drug.
Palmieri said there’s been a shift in recent decades from police being just enforcers of drug laws to being part of an addiction prevention system.
“This gives us more of an option,” he said of the HOPE initiative.