A baby, a needle, a new drug war

Why a police chief changed his mind.

Police Chief Leonard Campanello in his office in Gloucester. —Elise Amendola / AP

The tiny apartment was filthy, with just a few pieces of worn furniture and an empty fridge.

The officers knew the house well. The woman passed out on the couch with a needle in her arm wasn’t a surprise.

She wasn’t alone, though. Across the room, standing and wailing in his crib, was a baby boy.

As soon as he spotted the officer in his uniform, the boy reached out his arms. And the cop, without thinking about the job, picked the little boy up.

He didn’t let go for hours.

Leonard Campanello thinks a lot about that little boy. It’s been more than 20 years since he held him. He’s not a cop in Saugus anymore, but the police chief in the seaside town of Gloucester. Now, he’s not just responding to overdoses and drug arrests, but making the big decisions about how to handle them.

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As the world found out in a Facebook post in early May, Campanello has some new ideas about how to handle addiction. And across the country, people are paying attention.

Under the new rules in Gloucester, anyone who walks into the police station wanting treatment will get it, provided she doesn’t have a serious record or any open warrants. She’ll have an “angel’’ who will sit with her in the hours it can sometimes take to find a detox or residential treatment facility. And if she wants Narcan, the opiate reversal drug, she can get it for cheap, courtesy of drug-seizure money in Gloucester’s coffers.

Campanello says the little boy from 20 years ago, who he handed over to social services, was the beginning of the change in his beliefs about what it means to be a cop.

“You start to drop the shield,’’ Campanello said. “And you look for ways in which you can help those people who are victims of the victims.’’

Listen: Campanello talks about helping the boy

* * *

More than 1,000 people died in Massachusetts last year of an opiate overdose.

The state has been in an opiate crisis for more than a decade, since 456 people fatally overdosed in 2004. Last year, then-Gov. Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency.

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Heroin isn’t new to Gloucester, either. A 1988 Associated Press story detailed the “rising tide of heroin addiction.’’

Then, just six people a year died of a heroin overdose in Gloucester. That was before prescription opiates flourished. This year, four people died by April.

The deaths prompted a May 2 community meeting. Two days later, Campanello wrote the Facebook post. Since the program began June 1, 22 addicts have walked into the police station lobby asking for help.

Lt. David Quinn is usually the one sitting next to them in the next few hours. The second-generation lawman is in a brand-new role as advocate. He’s learning just how hard it can be to find treatment for addicts.

“It comes down to detox beds, long-term treatment beds and insurance companies making it available,’’ he said.

Quinn has learned that it’s better when people come into the police station high. That gives him a few more precious hours before they’re thrown into withdrawal.

It hurts him most when young women come in who remind him of his college-aged daughters. But after 19 years in law enforcement, he’s getting a lot more hugs than he used to.

* * *

In February, Gov. Charlie Baker created a statewide opioid task force. On the 23rd day of Campanello’s new policy, the panel announced suggestions that sound a lot like Gloucester’s: treat addiction as an illness. Reduce the stigma. Put less emphasis on arrests and incarcerations. Make police a partner in obtaining treatment.

“We are not going to arrest or incarcerate our way out of this,’’ Attorney General Maura Healey said the day the findings were released. “Addiction must be treated like any other chronic illness.’’

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Last week, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told Boston.com that his city was closely watching the Gloucester program and might eventually consider adopting it.

John Rosenthal was sitting in his kitchen when he heard an interview with Campanello about his new approach. The Boston-based developer, best known for the giant Stop Handgun Violence billboard along the Mass Pike, immediately called Campanello.

The two quickly founded a new nonprofit called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative.

Rosenthal said already, almost 20treatmentcenters nationwide have said they’d take in those seeking help. He said other private businesses also need to step up. Insurance companies. Recovery facilities. Pharmacological giants. Hospitals.

“Solving this — opiate addiction and treatment system failures — could be one of the easiest major health epidemics to solve in history,’’ he said.

* * *

Thousands of people, from as far away as California, Hawaii, Canada and places closer to Cape Ann, have hailed Campanello and Gloucester’s approach.

With a groundbreaking new way of dealing with addiction, a newly launched non-profit and new fans both on social media and in his town, will Campanello push for more legislators and law enforcement to follow his lead?

“Nice try,’’ he tells a reporter. “Move on.’’

With some prodding, he elaborates. It’s not his role to say what the laws should be.

“It’s not our job in law enforcement to judge the people that we encounter,’’ he said. “It’s our job to enforce the laws where we have to, and our job to help where we can. And also our job to reflect what the community wants when we use our discretion.’’

But he does say people across the country want their cops to be less punitive and more compassionate.

Rosenthal is less hesitant. He ssaid Campanello’s change of heart is changing the debate in Massachusetts and across the country.

“Lo and behold, Gloucester and now Massachusetts has become where the pebble drops and the ripple starts a new, very productive conversation around opioid addition,’’ he said.

It’s too early to know if what’s happening in Gloucester will make a difference. If one chief’s view can start a lasting conversation. If those 22 people — and counting — will stay clean. If crime in the city will go down because fewer addicts are desperate for a fix.

“They enter here and they have hope,’’ Campanello said. “And they’re thankful and they’re emotional and their families are emotional. They realize that the stakes are so high. The stakes are literally life and death.’’

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