Unexpected Messengers of Hope

By Alison Webb

Police departments across the state are on the front lines of addressing Maine’s addiction crisis. The opioid epidemic has been front and center for law enforcement for many years, and local police departments have worked on reducing overdose deaths and helping people find treatment. I wanted to find out if law enforcement can also help amplify hope. I interviewed three law enforcement officers and one state representative to find out.

“Any community can do this,” Bob MacKenzie, Chief of Police for the Town of Kennebunk, says. He is talking about working together to support people in recovery. We are having lunch at Sebago Brewing Company in Kennebunk and he is describing the outpouring of support for people in recovery from substance use disorder in Kennebunk, where he grew up. “We get everyone involved,” MacKenzie says.

In Kennebunk, the business community has been especially active. Through Chief MacKenzie’s leadership, the District 7780 Rotary, which encompasses southern Maine and seacoast New Hampshire, has been fighting the opioid epidemic by offering training and educating the public on how addiction is a disease. MacKenzie was instrumental in the formation of the Rotary District 7780 Recovery Initiative Committee, which sponsors educational trainings about addiction. In the trainings, attendees learn about the opioid crisis, addiction and the signs of an overdose, as well as how to perform first aid and administer Naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids during overdose. The Rotary District 7780 Recovery Initiative Committee also invites members of the recovery community to speak to area rotary clubs.

The Kennebunk community has come together to raise funds to host several trainings for recovery coaches, who support people in early recovery as they find their way to wellness. With these funds and with additional money from Kennebunk Savings Bank’s Spotlight Fund, the police department is working with the Portland Recovery Community Center to deploy trained recovery coaches throughout York County. “Sure, we have to arrest,” MacKenzie said. “But we can also be allies. We can have empathy. There’s a time and place when law enforcement can talk, human to human. We can say, ‘You made a mistake. You can get past this. There is help. There is hope.’”

Time and time again, I hear from people in recovery that police officers were a big part of their recovery. Appreciation for being treated like a human being is a common refrain. Law enforcement officers do not always know when their actions greatly impact a person’s recovery, according to MacKenzie. “But we know we’re part of the solution,” says MacKenzie.

Like most allies, people in law enforcement who are engaged as recovery allies have had a
compelling experience that propels them to act. For some, it is finding out that someone they love has an addiction and then figuring out how to help. For others, their empathy is born from seeing so many people struggle with addiction and the harmful consequences that addiction can bring, including crime in their communities.

Robbie Moulton, Scarborough Police Chief, describes what many police officers experience. “You see the same people in the booking room again and again, and you see the pain they’re in, and you have to do something,” Moulton said. Moulton and his officers were inspired by the Gloucester, Mass. Police Department’s Angel Program and worked with staff at the Portland Recovery Community Center to create Operation
HOPE (Heroin-Opiate Prevention Effort), which launched on Oct. 1, 2015.

Since then, Operation HOPE has linked Angels (people trained to provide compassion and find appropriate treatment) to 375 people seeking help. “There were too many people dying,” Moulton says. “We couldn’t wait around for policies and laws to change. We had to do something.” Since the formation of Operation HOPE, several other police departments in Maine have developed similar programs. They call themselves the Neighborhood Hope Dealers at Operation HOPE, and they find treatment for people with opioid addiction who voluntarily turn in heroin, opiates, needles and other addiction-related paraphernalia without fear of arrest. People from all over Maine come to Scarborough seeking help. Those entering the program must be motivated to do the hard work and make changes, and to build a new life that supports sobriety. Health insurance is not required, although Operation HOPE works with insurance companies for people who do have coverage.

For some people, it is an effective intervention. One recipient recently phoned the Scarborough Police Department and left this message: “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to save my life....[treatment] was amazing and now I’m in [a recovery residence]. I could not ask for more in life…Living one day at a time is the best thing I’ve ever learned, and I finally feel happiness again. Every day is a gift. So, thank you so much.”

John Kilbride, Chief of Police for the Town of Falmouth, takes the role of amplifying hope seriously. In Falmouth, it is mandatory for all police officers to carry copies of Journey in their cruisers and to give copies to families in crisis. “It’s a beautifully done resource,” Kilbride said. “It just landed on my doorstep.” According to Kilbride, publications like Journey support one critical aspect of his police work: starting the process of recovery.

“It was clear after dealing with pharmacy robberies [of opioids] that there was no fear of law enforcement or incarceration,” Kilbride says, when talking about the opioid crisis. “People were driven by their disease.” Law enforcement officers are social workers by virtue of their experience working with people in crisis who need help, he says. When those crises hit, he instructs his officers to slow down, spend time with families, and act with compassion and empathy. That is something he learned through a family member’s addiction, and that changed him. “It made me a better cop,” Kilbride says.

Kilbride’s passion is education and prevention. He is interested in intervening before there is a problem, working “upstream” in the lingo of public health. He is actively involved in Casco Bay CAN, a regional prevention coalition that serves Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, Gray, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth, Yarmouth and Pownal. Kilbride participates in the coalition’s work with students, parents and community groups on drug take-back days, education, community forums and other events. He is also working with the Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG) to address opioid addiction as a community problem with a community solution. “GPCOG is responding to energy in the community, in churches and in Rotary, and is helping us coordinate our efforts,” Kilbride said. The focus is on making the opioid problem visible and providing education about addiction and prevention.

Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell, is the House Chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee at the legislature and she previously served on Maine’s Judiciary Committee. When it comes to policies around law enforcement, she knows what she is talking about. She took a short break from her committee work to talk with me in her offi ce at the State House. “Law enforcement doesn’t just want to lock people up; they want to be part of the solution to our addiction crisis. Law enforcement offi cers have continuously asked the committee for more help and more ways to help people in recovery,” Warren says.

“They [law enforcement] take pride in what they are doing to help people in recovery,” Warren says. “They look up to what Scarborough and Kennebunk are able to do, but in their rural areas, there are no services. They are on the front lines. They are begging for help to be able to do their part.”

There is so much to do, according to Warren. Supporting medication assisted treatment in jails, transition planning before release, safe and affordable housing at release, wraparound services for people coming out of jail and statutory changes around mandatory minimum sentencing are at the top of her list. “We need to be better at accepting and supporting individual choice and pathways [to recovery] in jails and prisons,” Warren says. “We need to celebrate people’s successes when they get out.” I ask her what her vision is, what she would like to see in Maine in 10 years. “We would start early,” Warren said. “We would recognize the difference between youth who use drugs recreationally and the small percentage who have a serious problem at an early age. We would be supporting children through tough situations. We would be talking about emotions and mental health, talking about emotional and physical pain.” Her vision mirrors that of Chief Kilbride, who says it is all about prevention.

Somehow, I think they would both would agree with Chief MacKenzie, who reminded me of what he calls the “dash of life” — that dash between a person’s date of birth and date of death. “That’s your legacy,” MacKenzie said. “That’s what counts. You have to know it, see it, do it.”

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