BOSTON >> Though they are more accustomed to working together, police officials and district attorneys found themselves testifying Monday on opposite sides of a bill allowing addicts seeking recovery to turn in heroin and other drugs without the threat of prosecution.
The bill (H 3993) filed by Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante provides that a person who, in good faith, enters a police station and seeks assistance or treatment for a drug-related addiction "shall not be charged or prosecuted for possession of a controlled substance," if the evidence for such a charge was gained as a result of the addict seeking treatment.
Ferrante, D-Gloucester, said she filed the bill to allow other municipalities to implement programs similar to the one Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello started about eight months ago. Campanello's so-called "Angel Program" allows people to surrender their drugs to the police and be steered towards addiction recovery programs rather than be arrested. To date, the program has served more than 400 people, Campanello said.
Dr. Daniel Muse, who works as a consultant to the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, told the Joint Committee on the Judiciary that the bill could open up police departments to greater liability and could raise concerns about entrapment if an addict seeking help is arrested for an outstanding warrant not related to the drugs they surrender.
"We potentially create false expectations and even greater frustrations for those suffering from addiction," he said. "As these efforts do increase, we run the risk of having many addendums to our present laws, which will result in inconsistencies and redundancies in policies."
Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey and Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless introduced Muse. Morrissey said Capeless, who serves as president of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, has not taken a firm position on the bill but, "generally speaking, I think if he did it would probably not be favorable." Capeless did not address the committee himself.
When Gloucester first started its program, Ferrante said, the Essex County district attorney was resistant, saying the program wouldn't work, and that it would be too costly, or that there were not enough treatment beds to be able to help everyone who would try to take advantage of the program.
"If Gloucester had heeded that advice, we would have had 400 potential overdoses in our community," she said. "But because we said it is time to do something bold, because we are tired of going to wake after wake after wake and seeing our brothers, our sisters, our cousins, our friends in caskets, we did something. And I'd like to think we assisted in the salvation and provided a path of redemption to 400 people."
Ferrante and Campanello also countered what they said was the other argument against the bill from prosecutors that police departments don't have the authority to decline to arrest a person who brings drugs into their station.
"When police departments were arresting addicts and putting them into the district attorneys diversion programs no one complained. When we took addicts and gave them deals if they turned over their dealers and asked the district attorneys to help us facilitate that deal, they weren't complaining," Campanello said. "When police departments decided to help and invite addicts into their homes, so to speak, and offer help before a charge, only then we heard it is possible we're legally outside our boundary."
The suggestion from district attorneys and others that police officers don't have enough training to be able to decipher between someone legitimately seeking help with an addiction and someone looking to avoid being charged with drug possession, is an insulting one, Campanello said.
"Police officers aren't idiots. They know the difference between someone looking for help and someone trying to get out of a charge," he said. "And to have the DA say that we need more training in substance abuse is a slap in the face to every police officer out there, quite frankly, because we've been doing this in and out and watching the addicts every single day."
Though other cities have already begun to adopt the Gloucester model, Campanello said having the Legislature pass Ferrante's bill would provide cover for departments that may be uneasy launching a program that the local district attorney says may not be acceptable.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, on Monday sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee supporting Ferrante's bill with the caveat that the bill's language be changed from "...shall not be charged" to "...may not be charged" to avoid striping law enforcement officers of their discretion in such cases. Ferrante, too, suggested the change to the committee during the hearing.
Before testifying in front of the Judiciary Committee, Ferrante highlighted the progress made in Gloucester and her bill at a press conference with Campanello; Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan; Sutton Police Chief Dennis Towle; President of the Central Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association; Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins Jr.; John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (P.A.A.R.I.); members of East Bridgewater HOPE for Recovery and the East Bridgewater Police Department; Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO; and Sarah Gordon Chiaramida, of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans.