Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton wants drug addicts to come to the police station, give up their drugs and seek help. And he believes some will.

Moulton on Thursday announced the department’s plan to launch Operation Hope, modeled after the Angel initiative underway in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The department is partnering with the Portland Recovery Community Center and the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative to help addicts get treatment instead of sending them to a cell in county jail.

“We signed up for this job to help people and there are people who desperately need help,” Moulton said during a news conference at police headquarters. “We will treat them with respect. We will keep them safe. We will try to get them in recovery.”

Officer John Gill is spearheading the department’s effort to divert addicts into treatment. He said those arrested committing crimes will face the consequences. But those who volunteer to seek treatment will find help at the police department.

Moulton said the middle-class Portland suburb he watches over is struggling like many other communities with addiction and the crimes that it spawns. In the past year, the town has experienced one fatal overdose and 10 emergencies in which people were overdosing and needed to be resuscitated.


“This goes across all socioeconomic lines. We’re dealing with middle-aged folks, soccer moms, business people,” Moulton said. “We really need to see addiction for what it is – a health issue.”

The problem doesn’t just affect addicts and their families, he said. His officers estimate that 80 percent to 85 percent of the town’s crimes, such as robberies and burglaries, are related to addiction.

Scarborough’s Operation Hope, which officially starts Oct. 1, invites anyone in possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia to bring them to the police station. They won’t be arrested. Instead, police say, that person will be able to get rid of their drugs and get help.

Scarborough officers will receive special training on how to interact with people suffering from addiction. The Portland Recovery Community Center also will train a cadre of so-called “angels,” community-minded volunteers who might be in recovery themselves or have family members who have dealt with addiction. The angels will be trained in how to interact with someone who is in withdrawal and how to locate available services.

Scarborough’s plan is modeled after a similar program in Gloucester that has been replicated in 20 communities across nine states.

Stephen Cotreau, program director for the recovery center, said getting people to seek help is an important first step, and having someone familiar with available resources will improve the chances of success. Linking them with peer support through the center will help them stay sober, he said.


Gill said the effort is not being funded by tax dollars. Officers who developed the program did it on their own time, and training is being paid for with outside grants and private funding.

Scarborough police gave a presentation on the plan to the Town Council on Wednesday and it was well-received, Moulton said.

Maine is short on treatment resources for people fighting opiate addiction, a situation that presents a clear challenge for the program. There are just four acute opiate detoxification beds in the state, Gill said, and the number of longer-term treatment beds dropped sharply when Mercy Recovery Center closed this summer.

The partnership with Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, based in Gloucester, may open up access to treatment programs out of state. Already, a Florida drug treatment center has offered to provide some treatment resources to support Scarborough’s program. And Liberty Bay Recovery Center, a treatment facility in Portland that offers 90-day residential treatment, has pledged three “scholarship beds” for people who can’t afford treatment or don’t have insurance.

Nathan Cermelj, program director for Liberty Bay, said the center was one of the first to sign on with Gloucester when it learned about that town’s program, because of its emphasis on viewing addiction as a health issue, not a crime issue.

Cermelj said getting access to out-of-state treatment centers could help fill the need among Mainers, although such facilities are private and can’t operate at a loss. If the three scholarship beds were paying customers, they would bring in more than $50,000 a year, he said.


The hope is that some people seeking help will have insurance or financial support and can be referred to the private treatment centers that have signed on, Gill said.

He is nervous about not being able to meet expectations because treatment isn’t available. But he felt compelled to do something.

“People are dying,” Gill said. “If we can do one or two or three people and save their lives, it’s more than we’re doing right now.”

Scarborough is among the first communities in Maine to sign on to the program, with similar initiatives underway in Oxford and Kennebec counties.

“Maine is currently experiencing a heroin problem of near-epidemic proportions, and with the number of residents seeking treatment growing every year, a new approach needed to be taken to assist our community and save lives,” Chief Moulton said.

Other communities continue to weigh different approaches to diverting drug users from the criminal justice system.


Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said Maine’s largest city has studied a variety of programs, including the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program that was pioneered in Seattle. That model involves diverting people into treatment after they are arrested for drug possession, or seeking them out and recruiting them for treatment.

“You have to be very specific with a program and what works for your community,” Sauschuck said. “What we know is there are incredibly limited resources around these issues. We want to get it right the first time.”

The challenge, Sauschuck said, is that there are ample treatment options for people who have insurance or money, but most people suffering from addiction have neither.

John Rosenthal, who co-founded Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative with Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, said the goal of the initiative is to ultimately help expand the treatment options to which police departments and others can turn. There are 40 treatment centers in 17 states that are working with the initiative, he said.

“The potential here is that law enforcement, working with the business community, can ultimately be effective in working with legislators and Congress to once and for all acknowledge addiction as an illness, no different than diabetes and cancer, versus lazily treating it like a crime and stigmatizing it like crime and continuing to lose the war on drugs,” Rosenthal said. “For every drug dealer you arrest, there’s more than one to take his place.”

And Rosenthal said he is not surprised to see small suburban communities like Scarborough joining the effort.

“You can’t just slough this off like it’s an urban, non-white, minority problem. This is a rural and suburban scourge,” he said.

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