Northampton police officer adjusts to a new role in battling opioid epidemic
Note: This article, written by Adam Van Buskirk, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on January 2, 2018.
The Drug Addiction Response Team, also known as DART, launched at the Northampton Police Department in February of 2016, where I’ve worked as a patrol officer since 2008.
When Chief Jody Kasper sent out an email asking for volunteers to help develop the program, I responded because I have witnessed the opioid epidemic devastate families, relationships, careers and lives right here in Northampton. I hoped that I could help those struggling with addiction.
As we designed the program, it was difficult to determine exactly what the role of DART officers would be. Historically, in our country’s “war on drugs,” police officers have been the enforcers. It was common to arrest people for shoplifting, robbery and other forms of theft that were fueled by their drug habits.
Sometimes we would find people injecting, smoking, snorting or inhaling illegal substances, and we would arrest them. We hoped that this response would serve as a deterrent both for the crimes and for their future use of drugs.
Police used this method of responding to our nation’s drug problem for decades. Like many people in law enforcement, I did not know there could be another way.
Meanwhile, during those same years, we watched the number of drug-related arrests and the number of people overdosing steadily rise. As the problem worsened and we watched people struggle and sometimes die, it became clear that a new strategy was necessary. So, when the chief proposed the DART program, I immediately volunteered. Two other officers also volunteered, and recently, we added a fourth member to the DART team.
I believe my role in the DART program humanized me to people struggling with addiction. I’m not the guy with the badge and the uniform, I’m Adam.
What should a police officer’s role be in a person’s recovery?
An officer’s immediate instinct is to arrive at a scene, work swiftly to fix a problem, and clear the area so we are ready for the next call. With the opioid epidemic, during the first few years that the NPD began carrying the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, we would respond to an overdose, provide Narcan and other medical aid, and then transport the person to the hospital. There was never follow up. That did not seem like our place. In many cases the individual was discharged within a few hours and was often out seeking more drugs.
I can recall one instance when a young man overdosed and was unresponsive. We brought him back to life with Narcan. He went to the hospital and was released. Less than 24 hours later, we heard his address over our radio again, for another overdose. Again, we brought him back to life.
Situations like that one forced us to question how we were responding to this epidemic. Did we fail this person?
Following his first overdose, he was at a very high risk of overdosing again, yet we lacked the tools and training to help. It seemed like there was a gap in services. We wondered if police could help fill this gap. What if we followed up with individuals at the hospital or right after they were released?
As a DART officer, I have worked with people in many different ways. This program asks people to take a risk by trusting me and accepting my help. I know that is not an easy thing: Most of the people we deal with have been arrested by us or have had some type of negative involvement with police. Understandably, they are going to mistrust us.
I know I have to prove to them that my wanting to help them is not misguided. That takes time. It means listening to their needs. Sometimes I work to find inpatient or outpatient treatment for a person. In other instances, I have connected them to On Call, for medication assisted treatment, or sent them to Tapestry for its needle exchange program or to get help signing up for Mass Health insurance.
I have helped people get into treatment, watched them relapse, and then I have worked to get them back into treatment. I once picked a man up from a local hospital to drive him to a detox facility in Greenfield. People have met me at the police department to get help finding the appropriate insurance just so they could begin treatment.
Working with people who struggle with addiction is not easy. It is frustrating and sometimes it feels like we take one step forward and two steps back. But, while it takes many phone calls, appointments, and a lot of effort to support a person in recovery, it has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. I have witnessed people reclaim control of their lives, get healthy, and live a life not controlled by addiction.
I’m excited that now our program (or something like it) is being developed in other Hampshire County communities. This is thanks to the $1.7 million federal grant awarded to Hampshire HOPE, the opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department, that is paying for the distribution of Narcan to all police departments in the county as well as support to create post-overdose response teams like DART. Because of the grant, I’ve already been to Belchertown to work with officers there, and I’m preparing to spend time in Hadley.
I believe if most police departments have similar programs, help for people experiencing overdoses will be smoother. This means people who are at risk can be better served. For example, if I have a guy who overdoses in Northampton but lives in Hadley, I can call the Hadley Police Department and get someone there to visit him. It’s going to be a huge benefit to every community in Hampshire County.
I know of no greater obstacle that people face than the dangerous and dark world of addiction. It is a lifelong battle. Addressing this epidemic effectively requires being willing to try new approaches and strategies. Collaboration among many different members of our community is essential. Most importantly, it requires the willingness of all involved to be there for the long haul.
Northampton Patrol Officer Adam Van Buskirk is a member of Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Members of the coalition contribute to a monthly column in this space about local efforts underway to address the opioid epidemic.