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It’s Steve Lesnikoski’s first day as the outreach worker at the Ipswich Police Department. How he came into this role may have seemed implausible a few years ago when he was living in San Jose, California.
“I was addicted to heroin and in a pretty bad spot,” Lesnikoski said. “I was homeless, living in my car and I read an article on the website Reddit.”
The Gloucester Police Department was offering help to addicts with the promise of not arresting them.
“I sold the rest of my possessions and I got on the plane with a backpack with a pair of clothes and came out to the Gloucester Police Department on June 1, 2015," he said.
Lesnikoski was the first person to enroll in Gloucester’s Angel program, the precursor to PAARI — Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative. Since then, over 600 people have entered the Angel program in Gloucester. It worked for Lesnikoski. He has been sober for over two years now — a success story that motivated PAARI to hire him to help others beat addiction in police departments throughout Essex County.
Ipswich police officer and lifelong resident, Aaron Woodworth, said it is a crisis that hits close to home in his close-knit seaside community.
“I mean, everybody knows everybody,” said Woodworth. “A lot of people are related to everybody. So, it certainly hits everybody across the board.”
He is hopeful that having Lesnikoski at the police department every week will motivate addicts to feel comfortable coming to the station for help.
“Whatever way we can get people to understand that we want to help them as a town — as a society. We can get people the assistance that they need,” Woodworth said. “But it's building that trust. It's that trust that we need to try and gain with people that we're not trying to lock them up and throw away the key.”
Ipswich is joining over 350 police departments nationwide that are offering drug treatment help. That number continues to grow. PAARI is now a partner with the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy and has also launched a recovery coach program with AmeriCorps.
On Tuesday, police chiefs from across country descended on Boston for PAARI’s two-day summit to learn more about implementing a police-run treatment program. One of the challenges is insurance coverage, noted Michael Yankowski, police chief of Lansing Michigan. Gaining trust is another.
“We’ve been stating for quite a long period of time now, about six months, that if you have an addiction problem, come to the police department and we will get you help.” Yankowksi said.
But not many people have taken the department up on its offer.
“We have not had a huge number,” he said. “And I think that’s part of the education process out there. Our overdoses are continuing but we are not getting the families, those individuals.”
That’s where Steve Lesnikoski thinks a personal connection really matters. He hopes his own experience with finally beating addiction will help others do the same.
“I do understand the feelings of despair of hopelessness and absolute terror and fear. Waking up knowing that you're sick, 'How [am I] going to get money, will this drug kill me today, will it not?' I know what that thought process looks like,” he said. “And just meeting somebody where they're at and coming to them from a place of non-judgment and really no stigma attached, I think is helpful. I want people to know that there's hope and that there's the possibility of living a different life.”
That possibility could start at a local police department.