top of page

Four Police Programs Changing How We Address Addiction

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

By Jessica Hulsey Nickel

In honor of National Police Week 2017, we want to recognize the agencies and law enforcement leaders that are redefining how police respond to individuals with substance use disorders. In surveying innovations nationwide, we’ve found that some of the most cutting-edge initiatives to better respond to individuals with substance use disorders are spearheaded by the law enforcement community. Here are four programs we think you should know about:

1.  “A Way Out,”Lake County, Illinois

A Way Out” in Lake County, Illinois is a way to fast-track individuals with substance use disorders to treatment programs and services. How? The encourage individuals needing treatment to follow these three simple steps: 1) Locate a participating police department 2) Walk in through the main doors of the department nearest you 3) Tell the clerk at the reception window they want to participate in “A Way Out”. The program is available 24 hours a day at the seven participating police departments across Lake County and ensures no criminal charges will be sought as long as assistance is sought out by the prospective program participant. They’ve even launched a smartphone app to help guide you to the nearest participating police station.

“Addiction is a disease. A Way Out treats it like one. We want to help people struggling with substance abuse, not arrest them.” - Chief Eric Guenther of Mundelein Police Department A Way Out reframes the role law enforcement plays in helping connect individuals in crisis with treatment. As Chief Eric Guenther of Mundelein Police Department explains: “Addiction is a disease. A Way Out treats it like one. We want to help people struggling with substance abuse, not arrest them.” As of April 26, 2017, 119 participants have accessed treatment through the A Way Out program and many are engaged in treatment settings or recovery programs today. Approximately 70% of participants have exceeded the goal for residential retention as defined by the Illinois Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse, a higher rate than the state wide average (DASA FY2016 data).

2.  STEER Program, Montgomery County, MD The STEER (Stop, Triage, Engage, Educate and Rehabilitate) program in Montgomery County, Maryland provides rapid identification and access to treatment for individuals with substance use disorders that law enforcement encounter. STEER’s goal is to direct people in need of substance abuse treatment away from jail to an intervention program. Police Officers use a screening tool to decide whether a person is a candidate for this deflection. Charges can be held in abeyance while the person is seeking services and if no criminal charges are present, the individual can still be referred to STEER in a prevention contact. The citizen is offered a chance for treatment and help without entering into the criminal justice system. Chief Tom Manger with the Montgomery County Police Department has been an important element of the program’s success, along with key program partners that include the State’s Attorney, Public Defender, corrections, Human Services, and local treatment providers. As of November 2016, STEER had deflected 133 individuals and has now become part of police options on how to respond to people with substance use disorders. Of the 157 people referred to STEER, as of February 5, 2017, 66 (42%) were assessed and 37 of those assessed (56%) agreed to participate in treatment.

3.  Arlington Opiate Outreach Initiative, Arlington, Massachusetts The Arlington Massachusetts Police Department began tracking opioid related overdoses and deaths in 2013 and quickly recognized a growing problem. Working in conjunction with the community, the Arlington Police Department implemented the Arlington Opiate Outreach Initiative (AOOI) to prevent multiple overdoses and break the cycle of addiction.  The program uses seven steps to tackle the lifecycle of substance use disorders from the early stages, recovery, to relapse prevention, including: 1) Target Most at Risk; 2) Widen Access to Naloxone; 3) Create a Partnering Relationship with those Most at Risk; 4) Educate the Public; 5) Treatment Access; 6) Prevent Relapses; 7) Remove Surplus of Opiate Medications. Rebecca Wolfe, a Jail Diversion Clinician for AOOI, explains: “This is our attempt to provide a comprehensive police-based response to the opiate epidemic.” Since 2013, AOOI has held over 15 community meetings and events in the city of Arlington, training over 50 people in the community on how to use naloxone. Through this program, over 90 people have been sent to the hospital for treatment and an AOOI clinician has connected with over 56 overdose victims and their families. AOOI has also collected and disposed of over 96,000 unused prescription drugs from the community. This comprehensive plan is making headway in stemming the tide of opioid overdoses in their town and demonstrates how programs can expand training to reverse overdoses and provide follow-up support after an overdose reversal to use that incident as an access to care opportunity.

4.  Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD®) Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD®) is a police-led diversion program designed to connect people with substance use disorders and/or mental health needs with social services rather than funnel them into the criminal justice system. LEAD allows law enforcement officers to redirect people suspected of committing specific, low-level crimes, including drug-related offenses, to community-based services rather than to jail. The primary goal of the LEAD program is to improve public safety by addressing the underlying factors that drive criminal justice contact. Once enrolled in LEAD, the participant works closely with a case manager to identify his or her needs and get connected to the appropriate service providers. The program is not exclusively focused on providing addiction treatment or mental health treatment. For some participants, housing and reliable access to food may be the most pressing needs. In a report from 2015, which focused on recidivism, the researchers found that LEAD participants were 58% less likely to be arrested when compared to a control group not involved in the program, and 34% less likely to be arrested for a new offense. Researchers also found that LEAD participants were 39% less likely to be charged with a felony after enrolling in the program. These results demonstrate that connecting people to community-based services, rather than booking them into jail, is not only better for the individual but also improves public order and safety.

Many Thanks We want to express our sincere gratitude to the thousands of law enforcement officers from across the country that dedicate their lives each and every day to caring for our communities. And there are hundreds of departments testing and launching truly innovative programs that reframe how we respond to those with substance use disorders, that treat addiction as a disease, and help lift up families impacted by addiction.

Jessica began working in prevention at 15 years old through an anti-drug coalition in southern California. The next chapters included an appointment by President Bill Clinton to serve on the Drug-Free Communities Commission, serving as a legislative aid in the U.S. House of Representatives, and work to pass and fund the Second Chance Act to help individuals returning home from prison and jail. In 2015, Jessica founded the Addiction Policy Forum to help families and patients struggling with the disease of addiction. Frustrated by the lack of progress in improving outcomes for those individuals and families struggling, she started the nonprofit with $13,000 from her own savings account and long hours at the dining room table. Read more about Jessica Hulsey Nickel.


bottom of page