Police departments in many communities across the country are trying out new methods of slowing the steady rise in opioid addiction and overdoses.

They require the police to rethink what law enforcement could bring to the problem using innovative approaches to its role in the community and its interactions with people who are at the mercy of these powerfully addictive substances.

Cuffing and jailing addicts fail to slow the epidemic

National Public Radio recently featured an officer working to implement a new kind of outreach approach that has been getting traction in 150 communities in Massachusetts and other states.

“For the longest time, the whole idea was arrest, arrest,” the officer explained to an NPR reporter. “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

A basic insight of the approach is that law enforcement is the first authority to encounter many drug users long before they come to tag the user’s body after a fatal overdose. Police frequently and plainly see that the person has a drug problem when they respond to a call of a nonfatal overdose, a drug-related theft or assault, or the like.

After the initial crisis is resolved, following up on these interactions in nonjudgmental ways has helped save lives. The idea is to focus on getting to the user before it is too late.

Distrust of police proves to be an obstacle

Addiction can be a very impenetrable shell in the first place. But due to a long history of negative associations or unhelpful experiences with the police, officers can find it hard to get through to addicts.

Police often have a hard time convincing drug users that they are not in trouble, the police are not there to arrest them and that their mission is to help the user.

In partnership with the state’s public health system, the police help arrange whatever needs might be productive at that stage of the person’s process out of recovery. At one point, it might be a safe place to sleep for the night, at another a ride to detox or a referral to a needle-exchange program may make more sense.

Sometimes, handing out Narcan and giving some training in how and when to use it can save a person’s life or the life of someone they love. And that can be a very effective outreach tool.