As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the nation’s physical and mental well-being, it can be difficult to fully focus on one pubic health crisis, much less two. The addiction epidemic that preceded the coronavirus pandemic, however, has not gone away.
As these twin crises continue to dovetail, it’s heartening to see the Great Barrington Police Department taking a proactive approach to tackling addiction in the community — not by criminalizing or stigmatizing people in crisis, but by offering them help. Thanks to a partnership with the Rural Recovery Resources program, the Great Barrington Police Department will augment its Co-Responder Program to offer assistance through clinician services and recovery coaches.
The police are tasked with keeping their communities safe. Sometimes that means arresting people who pose a threat to those around them. Other times, however, that can mean connecting people with recovery services, hopefully circumventing the vicious cycle that people struggling with addiction often face when thrown into the criminal justice system. Great Barrington Police Chief Paul Storti, who began leading the department last month, said this effort will be incorporated into response procedures, but will also allow people to reach out directly to the department for help. It’s an approach both sensible and compassionate. The throes of addiction are not a moral failing but a treatable condition. For those suffering it, the institutions meant to protect and serve them should play a part in providing the services they need and whenever possible divert them away from the criminal justice system, not toward it.
While the coronavirus has commanded our attention over the past year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to flag the deepening problem of addiction and deaths of despair in the U.S. In the 12-month period ending in May 2020, the most recent provisional data available, the U.S. saw 81,000 drug overdose deaths. It’s a grim trend — the highest number of OD deaths ever recorded in that timespan, according to the CDC. Deaths involving synthetic opioids appear to be the primary driver, with a 38.4 percent uptick over the previous 12-month period. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants and cocaine also increased significantly over the same period, up 34.8 percent and 26.5 percent, respectively.
It’s unfortunately not surprising that these numbers are on the rise. The protracted pandemic has cranked up many of the stressors — loneliness, economic insecurity and separation from social support — that frequently contribute to substance abuse disorders and relapse.
The problem of addiction, in our local communities and beyond, is not a simple problem and will require a multifaceted solution. What must be a part of that solution is meeting struggling people where they are to start giving them the help they need. Local police departments can play a significant part in that. Police are already “first responders.” The Great Barrington force’s new program suggests a more holistic understanding of that job — responding to the needs of those in crisis, even if that means connection to professional assistance rather than a trip through the court system.
After a year of much unrest and discussion over how police should best serve their constituencies, there is a call among many to rethink the way departments deploy their resources, particularly in vulnerable communities. The new rural recovery program in Great Barrington shows a police department that appears to recognize that this is not a problem our society can simply incarcerate its way out of, and that a reimagining of police-community relations is not just possible but necessary. We hope the Great Barrington Police Department’s efforts are fruitful, and that other departments take notice.