Police chief gets high praise for drug-crisis approach
Cassandra Holloway, director of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, stands with Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald after an award ceremony last month at the Statehouse in Montpelier.

Police chief gets high praise for drug-crisis approach

Fitzgerald aims 'to help good people, not just arrest bad people'

BRATTLEBORO — Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald was recently lauded at the Statehouse for his drug and alcohol prevention work with youth and adults.

At Prevention Day at the Statehouse on Feb. 22, Prevention Works! VT presented awards to six “Prevention Champions” from throughout the state, including Fitzgerald.

He was nominated by Cassandra Holloway, director of the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition.

This is the first time Holloway nominated someone for the award.

Holloway noted Fitzgerald and his staff “are trying to address the barriers to getting people directly into treatment” when they are ready for it.

Fitzgerald sits on the Coalition's advisory board. “Having him [there] is good because he lets us know what law enforcement can do, and what the town can do” to assist in prevention efforts, Holloway said.

Fitzgerald first learned about the Coalition and their work as a captain at the Brattleboro Police Department, he told The Commons. “I saw their commitment and I wanted to get involved,” he said.

Critical distinctions

As chief, Fitzgerald wanted to change the culture of his department, which included the way he and his officers interacted with people experiencing drug addiction.

About two years ago, he and his officers created a mission statement, which acknowledges “the differences in the conduct of people who need our help, those who make poor decisions, and those who choose to victimize others.”

When creating the mission statement and other new aspects to the culture, “we sat back and asked ourselves, 'How do we want to police Brattleboro, and more importantly, how does Brattleboro want to be policed?'” Fitzgerald said.

“In some areas, enforcement isn't the most appropriate action,” he said. “We need to change the culture away from 100 percent law enforcement, away from this warrior mentality, toward what we can do to help good people, and not just arrest bad people.”

When asked why he supported these changes, which go against the grain of most aspects of law enforcement, Fitzgerald said, “we were dealing with the same people again and again, doing the same thing. The only time we wouldn't deal with them was when they were incarcerated. It's a waste of resources, and you're not fixing the problem.”

“It's the definition of insanity, and it was not working,” Fitzgerald said. “Let's stop it before it starts is the most forward thinking.”

“We find that a lot people suffering from mental health illness or drug addiction, once you sit down and listen to their stories, you get a whole different perspective,” Fitzgerald said. “You find out they were blue-collar, white-collar, a high school drop out, a Ph.D, everything in-between. You find out they're not a bad person, they're just in a bad situation.”

“And, I personally believe that when an individual asks for help, that is a sign of strength, and we have to get an environment where that is generally accepted so people feel comfortable and confident to seek help,” he said.

Partnering with experts

Because “law enforcement is not a health care provider and we're not mental health experts,” said Fitzgerald, “we began to partner with experts” in the mental and medical health fields.

One organization the Brattleboro Police Department began working closely with on education and training is the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative.

According to the Initiative's website, “In 2015, Gloucester [Mass.] Police Chief Leonard Campanello developed a revolutionary new way to fight the war on drugs by doing something about the demand, not just the supply. Under his plan, drug addicts who ask the police department for help will be immediately taken to a hospital and placed in a recovery program. No arrest. No jail.”

Fitzgerald adopted the plan for Brattleboro. In a new program introduced in the past few months, “if you're suffering from addiction, and you overdose [and survive], within 24 hours you'll get a visit from two people from an outreach team.”

The team includes representatives from the Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Turning Point Recovery Center, the Brattleboro Police Department, Health Care and Rehabilitation Services, and Habit Opco, the town's methadone clinic.

“It's voluntary and non-confrontational,” said Fitzgerald, and the person can choose to receive the team members or not. And, he noted, “there's no enforcement action whatsoever.”

But, he said, timing is important. “We have to contact them right when they need it the most, which is usually right after they overdose,” Fitzgerald said. “When someone asks for help, we should be in a position to provide it.”

“We just bring information. We don't check up on or hound them,” he said.

“If you're arrested, we'll also talk to you about the resources available to get help,” Fitzgerald said. “You're still being held accountable. You can't commit all the crimes you want because you're an addict,” he said. But there are more resources in those situations, beyond necessarily going to prison. “You can go to rehab, detox. We can talk to the state's attorney and get you into diversion,” he said.

In addition to the state's attorney's office, Fitzgerald noted other community partners: the coalition, the Restorative Justice Center, the Vermont Department of Public Health, and a variety of local organizations. “That's why I love this town,” he said, and continued, “we have so many great grassroots organizations doing great work.”

'Right in the medicine cabinet'

Other programs Fitzgerald and his officers have worked on include outreach and awareness of prescription drug abuse, especially among young people.

“It's a big concern of the police department and the parents and grandparents out there, and it's right in the medicine cabinet!” he said.

The Coalition gave the department a large supply of medication lock-boxes to distribute to the public, free of charge. “A person can come in and request a box, one per household,” Fitzgerald said.

The department also installed a drug drop box for unwanted prescriptions in its lobby. “You can come in 24/7” and deposit medications, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald also encourages his officers to become more active members of the community. He mentioned the Bigs in Blue program, which pairs an officer with a schoolchild. The officer visits the young person in school and spends time with them at the lunch table, on the playground, and during recess.

Officers also give classroom presentations on a variety of subjects, said Fitzgerald, from legal issues to “how to be a good person.”

“I think [Fitzgerald] does an extraordinary job in prevention, and he takes his role and uses it to change the way the community looks at substance disorders,” Holloway said. “It's so important to have a progressive and compassionate view of substance abuse in all sectors of the community, especially law enforcement.”

“He really understands that people with substance abuse issues are just like everyone else,” Holloway said, “but their disorders are hijacking them.”

“I wanted to recognize his work and have him be a model for other communities,” said Holloway.

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