Pushing Project Outreach: ‘It’s going to save lives’

Police-led initiative for people struggling with addiction.

From left, Brian Morris, mental health and substance use disorder access coordinator at Island Health Care; Nancy Merrill, program director of alcohol and drug abuse services at McLean Hospital, and Arden O'Connor, founder of O'Connor Professional Group. — Brittany Bowker

Police summoned to the scene of a reported overdose blare wailing sirens and blue flashing lights, entering an arena of high emotion, adrenaline, and a life on the line. The next day — if it’s a lucky case and the individual survives — often raises the question, What now?

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital (MVH) Substance Use Disorder team sends recovery coaches to hospital bedsides. Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) is often notified, as are Island Health Care (IHC) and the Martha’s Vineyard Substance Use Disorder (SUD) coalition, who offer their menu of recovery services. And now there’s another point of access — a police-led initiative called Project Outreach. 

Project Outreach is a nationwide police-led substance-use disorder outreach program that offers house calls, data tracking, personnel training, follow-up, and recovery resources for people in crisis. Under the model, police departments track down the individual they were called to assist the day or night before. An officer arrives on scene sans the blue flashing lights and wailing sirens, with a trained recovery coach. They offer help, a card, a conversation — options. 

“The thought is, once the dust settles, people can be more receptive to receive that additional care,” Edgartown Police Chief Bruce McNamee said. “Either inpatient treatment or just attending programs like AA or NA.” 

“What Project Outreach offers is help, and help wears many different hats,” said Brian Morris, a recovery coach and chairman of Island Integrated Public Health Collaborative (i2PHC) — another group committed to combating the opioid epidemic on Martha’s Vineyard. Morris and McNamee are hoping to bring Project Outreach to all six Island police departments — with Edgartown charting the preliminary waters.

McNamee is no stranger to the successes of Project Outreach. A former Plymouth police captain, McNamee saw that department first adopt the program in 2015, and it has since advanced “leaps and bounds,” McNamee said. Plymouth’s overdose rates are on the decline. 

“There’s nothing more contagious than success,” McNamee said. “We’re trying to mirror Plymouth County’s successes here on the Island.” 

Morris said they’re trying to adapt their own Island-grown moniker to make Project Outreach specific to Martha’s Vineyard. “No doubt opioids are bad, but it’s not the No. 1 problem here,” Morris said. “Alcohol is our biggest problem.” 

Morris, along with two officers from the Edgartown Police Department who are also trained recovery coaches, have already made two house calls — and both were successful.

“It was … the only word I can think of is transformative,” Morris said. 

Just as the Project Outreach framework outlines, Morris, the recovery coach, arrived with a trained Edgartown Police officer. They knocked on the front door of individuals at the center of chaos the night before, and offered help. One individual agreed to meet with a recovery coach and attend regular NA meetings, and the other went to Gosnold Treatment Center to get sober for five days.

“I know not every call is going to be successful,” Morris said. “Not everyone is going to say yes, and I respect that. But what I’d like to do is plant a seed, leave a card, and if they change their mind in six months, they know who to call.” 

Meetings, therapy, recovery coaches, cognitive behavior training, church, a dog, a higher power — these are all things Morris defines as recovery capital. “Anything that supports someone’s efforts to get through the day clean and sober. We meet addicts and alcoholics where they are — and they can sometimes be found in the strangest places,” he said. 

The recovery community is already robust on Martha’s Vineyard, with the SUD coalition, MVH, IHC, MVCS, and i2PHC, but Project Outreach offers another point of access. It also opens the door for more collaboration and interconnectivity. The full-fledged implementation of Project Outreach was outlined at a recent SUD coalition meeting at the i2PHC meeting space in Vineyard Haven.

“The fact that so many key stakeholders were in the same room at the same time speaks volumes as to the pertinence of this initiative,” Morris said. “All six Island police departments were in the same room, which is huge.” 

Representatives from Critical Incident Management System (CIMS), a data-tracking software, and Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) also attended the meeting to discuss how their programs could help Martha’s Vineyard succeed. “Their mission is to help programs like this,” Morris said. 

According to the CIMS website, “the software is a web-based product that facilitates maintenance and analysis of all program data including overdose incident and follow-up visit information. It contains an internal communication system that facilitates cross-sector collaboration and provides key stakeholders with necessary program reports.”

“If someone works in place X, lives in place Y, and overdoses in place Z, those are the kinds of things the software tracks,” McNamee said. “We’re not there yet. It’s almost like buying car software before you have a car.” 

CIMS software, proprietary rights, and training for involved personnel all come with a cost — something Martha’s Vineyard Project Outreach will hold off on until they know the interest and funding is there.

“Plymouth County enjoyed terrific success, and I don’t doubt it’ll take to the Island in due time,” McNamee said. 

“Of all of the things I’ve been involved with in three and a half years, this stands to be the most impactful, profound way to access those in trouble and give them the help they need,” Morris said. “It wasn’t too long ago that I was a person in peril. I wish a cop came knocking on my door asking if I wanted help. I’m proud to be part of this. It’s going to change the game. It’s going to save lives.”