Belchertown Police creating overdose response team in partnership with Hampshire HOPE

  • Belchertown Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2018 10:54:39 PM

BELCHERTOWN — In an effort to take a more proactive and empathetic approach to the opioid epidemic, Belchertown Police are partnering with Hampshire HOPE to create their own overdose response team and recruit the region’s first “recovery coach.”

“A lot of times they just think the police are there to arrest them,” Belchertown Police Lt. Kevin Pacunas said. “We want to show them that we do care, and that life does have meaning and they’re not in it alone.”

With the help of a four-year, $1.7 million federal grant awarded to the city of Northampton in September, Hampshire HOPE is working to establish these specialized overdose response teams across Hampshire County. Following Northampton’s lead, the Belchertown Police created a Drug Addiction Response Team, or DART, a model widely used by police departments across the country.

“The culture of policing is changing a lot with the opioid crisis and we want officers to feel confident in their role addressing this issue,” said Cherry Sullivan, coordinator of Hampshire HOPE. “These are officers that truly understand that they have a role in this and really want to be part of this movement.”

Officers Neil Lozier and Christopher Mayo volunteered to serve in the program, checking in on overdose victims in addition to their regular patrol responsibilities. They started reaching out to overdose victims in November, and have been well received, Pacunas said.

The DART approach does not treat addicts as criminals, but as people in need of help. Officers identify individuals who have overdosed on narcotics or engaged in high-risk behavior related to their addiction, and follow up with them within 48 hours of the initial call. 

Sullivan says Belchertown’s participation in the DART program is a pilot for a broader expansion of services to all of Hampshire County. 

“As we started to see the success of the DART program in Northampton, we started approaching other towns who expressed interest in creating a similar model,” Sullivan said. “Belchertown  is a community that has been hard hit by the crisis and is very willing and capable of stepping up to the plate.”

Recovery coaches

Unique to Belchertown’s DART program is their hiring of a “recovery coach” to stay in touch with overdose victims and continuously provide them resources.

“The recovery coaches will be this next step, this next layer of support for our overdose response teams,” Sullivan said.

In Belchertown, Susan Daley, an organizer with the addiction recovery group Speaking Out About Addiction and Recovery (SOAAR), will serve as a recovery coach. She helps run a sober house called Honest Beginnings, where up to 11 recovering addicts can live in a healthy, supportive atmosphere.

“If you can get them in the sober house everybody in there is working towards the same goal,” Pacunas said. “They have mentors there. They all have different functions in the house. They get help finding jobs. It keeps them on the right path.”

Becoming a recovery coach is not easy, Pacunas said. It requires about 500 hours of hands-on training, and immense amounts of patience and empathy. But with Daley’s help, addicts in recovery will have a long-term connection to the resources they need to avoid relapse.

“It’s more than just resources; its making a connection with them and being there when they need help,” Pacunas said.

Moving forward, Sullivan says Hampshire HOPE plans to create a non-fatal overdose database to better track and understand the epidemic throughout the region. Part of the database will be a communication portal so overdose victims treated outside their homes will receive DART support in their town of residence.

The organization also created a 12-member advisory council made up of health care professionals, recovery coaches, law enforcement officers, and representatives from the New England Drug Users Union, among others. Their first meeting is Feb. 12.

Belchertown police also compiled data on drug use encounters with police for 2017. In total, police responded to 23 overdoses, eight of which were fatal. Of the fatalities, six were male, two were female, with the average age of the overdose victims was 29. Heroin was a factor in five of the fatal overdoses, and Narcan was used on 11 separate occasions in 2017, with police administering up to three doses per incident.

“I’ve been so impressed by the energy and initiative Belchertown has taken to address this issue and this crisis,” Sullivan said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 91 Americans die daily from an opioid overdose. According to statistics gathered by the Northampton Police, Northampton saw 36 overdoses in 2017, four overdose deaths and administered Narcan on 23 occasions.

Northampton was the only city in the country to receive the grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com

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