New Bedford Tackles Opioid Crisis from a Different Angle
New Bedford has some of the highest rates of opioid overdose-related deaths in the state, and as the toll continues to rise, the New Bedford police department is considering some new approaches.
The police department has partnered with Seven Hills Drug Rehabilitation and an interfaith chaplain to make up the Opioid Intervention Taskforce, a group that visits people who have recently overdosed on opioids and attempts to get them to go to rehab.
"We’ve been dealing with an epidemic," captain Ricard Rizendes of the New Bedford police said. "We needed an out of the box way of attacking this problem. I’ve been in law enforcement for years and we can’t arrest our way out of this problem and what we’ve been doing since I’ve been a police officer is not really working."
New Bedford’s Opioid Taskforce began in 2015 when the police department was seeing a record number of opioid deaths and overdoses. In 2016 alone, New Bedford had 57 opioid deaths out of about 2,000 across the state, and the number continues to climb.
The taskforce makes rounds about five or six times a week, checking in on a list of people who have recently overdosed. During a ridealong in late April, Reverend David Lima of the Interfaith Council of New Bedford is the chaplain. He explains that having members from different organizations makes it easier to speak with those who have overdosed.
One of the things we believe is important is that it’s not about what we think the people need, it’s about what they’ll receive," Lima said. "And you may be the one that has that opening with that person or that family. And it’s not about getting them to us, it’s about getting them to where they need to get help."
The team has what they call a 45 percent “success” rate. They define success as a person who simply opens the door to the team and listens to what they have to say.
"A person always saying I don’t want no more visits, but that third re visit, the person finally said I’m ready," Lima said. "So part of this is about building relationship. It’s not about getting someone directly into services because not everyone’s ready and willing."
At one stop, the team is welcomed inside by Robert Bombard. He overdosed about 3 months ago.
Bombard says he’s been using heroin on and off since he was in his teens, but his most recent overdose was because he took fentanyl, thinking it was heroin. Fentanyl is about 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin.
"I had been using periodically...then I had copped that one day and it turned out to be fentanyl, and luckily I had people here with Narcan," he said. "I walked out of the bathroom right to that spot right over there and boom hit the floor."
When the intervention team came around a few weeks after his overdose, he was a little startled when he identified one of them as a police officer, but let the team in when he saw the drug counselor and chaplain.
"Well the first time they showed up I knew one guy looked like a cop, and then I said oh boy what’s this about, and then I saw you and you had a Seven Hills thing on and I said ok," Bombard said.
This is the third time the team has stopped in to check on him since his overdose, and he said it’s helped him stay clean. The members sit with him, ask him how he's been doing and if he's had any tough moments staying off opioids, and they also ask if he's attending any narcotics anonymous groups. For others, they may hold a prayer session if one is requested, or offer numbers for nearby drug rehab facilities or support groups.
"So it surprised me to think that anyone would care enough to come back and check on us. Because we’re throw away people, there’s no doubt in my mind. Junkie dies, oh well, he deserved it, she deserved it. But coming in knowing that people care enough to take their time, it’s a nice feeling," he said.
He knows staying sober is never for certain, and he still keeps Narcan in his living room just in case. But he hopes with the help of the team to hold him accountable, he won’t need to use it.