GLOUCESTER — Only weeks before the world would be swiftly and effectively turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gloucester Police Department’s Community Impact Unit opened its doors in February 2020 with big aspirations to deliver much needed help in the community.
Chief Edward Conley came up with the idea to launch the Community Impact Unit (CIU), expanding on the department’s existing Angel Program to offer support and resources to anyone struggling with substance use of any kind and/or mental health concerns.
The CIU also provides goods and resources to the homeless population, and the unit additionally includes the city’s two School Resource Officers among its members.
A year later, the CIU has managed to help hundreds, if not thousands of residents through various programs, resources, supports, and check-ins, the vast majority of which was accomplished despite the barriers of social distancing, mask wearing, limited gatherings and general public health concern due to COVID-19.
As the City of Gloucester, and the world, looks to recover from the pandemic and move forward, the CIU is more ready than ever to keep supporting those in need in Gloucester and finding innovative ways to meet people where they are.
“The pandemic didn’t slow us down; we were able to keep helping people and connecting with our residents even with the added challenges of social distancing, wearing masks, and limited gathering capacity. But it was a real barrier, and we’re excited now that things have reopened and more people are getting vaccinated,” CIU Leader Lt. Jeremiah Nicastro said. “The CIU is really meant to work with people face-to-face, and I think we’re going to make even more of an impact now that we can get out into the community more and develop even stronger connections.”
Members of the CIU include Lt.Nicastro, Community Health Navigator Tito Rodriguez, Community Impact Officer Joe Parady, School Resource Officers Peter Sutera and Michael Scola, and Community Resource Dog Ace.
From February 2020 to July 2021 Community Health Navigator Rodriguez has had 910 interactions with members of the community through which he connected them with substance use disorder services, recovery support, Narcan training and distribution, homelessness and housing support, legal resources, employment, advocacy and post overdose outreach. He also helped place 75 people directly into treatment services.
The CIU has also directly placed 125 people in detox, and connected those struggling with addiction to healthcare and residential services or section 35 court commitments. The group has also conducted 115 mental health related follow ups.
Since the CIU launched, it has organized and provided numerous community programs, some of which include:
- Bringing Ace, the community resource dog, into the Gloucester Public School district to provide emotional support to students. Recently, the CIU partnered with the Gloucester Education Foundation and First R Foundation to provide a book about Ace to every kindergarten and first grade student in Gloucester Public Schools, as well as classroom books and stuffed animals resembling Ace.
- Launching a program distributing back-packs full of food, toiletries, masks, hand sanitizer and other needed items to homeless people in the city. The program is funded by Beth Israel Lahey Health and Addison Gilbert Hospital, and the CIU continues to have available supplies today.
- Starting the Handle with Care Program, through which the department notifies schools when a child or teen has faced trauma. Members of the CIU do not share details of the trauma, but notify the schools that the child or teen may need additional support.
- Hosting numerous drives and fundraisers including two “Stuff Our Cruiser Drives” to support the work of the Open Door and a drive to collect soccer uniforms for homeless children in Haiti.
- Launching a video game program with the School Resource Officers to continue building fun, positive connections with students even amid remote learning and the pandemic.
- Holding an open house for children to talk with officers about the tragic death of George Floyd.
- Providing bicycles, scooters and skateboards purchased with funds from community donations to the CIU to children in need in the fall. Helmets were also provided, and were purchased through funds from a Pedestrian, Crosswalk and Bike Safety grant through the state. This was done in response to an increase of children and teens walking and biking to school amid the pandemic as riding the bus became more challenging due to social distancing limitations. The CIU hopes to continue this effort if funds are available.
- This June and July, the CIU also partnered with Boston Children’s Hospital on a car seat program. Local parents, guardians and caregivers were invited to take a free online course on car seat safety overseen by Boston Children’s Hospital, and after the course participants were awarded free car seats that would fit their child properly. The car seats will be installed by a certified technician at the Gloucester Police Department this July.
- School Resource Officer Sutera has conducted multiple social media safety training for parents and guardians of middle school and elementary school students
- Partnering with Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett to launch the All-Stars Academy, a new student leadership program offered at the O’Maley Middle School and Gloucester High School. The All-Stars Academy is modeled on a nationally-recognized program initiated by District Attorney Blodgett in Lynn.
- Community Health Navigator Rodriguez and Lt. Nicastro both spoke on March 23 at a Jail Diversion and Community Policing consultation hosted by the United Nations about Gloucester’s CIU and approach. The pair continue to work with the United Nations and World Health Organization to share best practices regarding pre-arrest alternatives.
- The CIU is in the process of hiring a Jail Arrest Diversion Specialist, who will join the department this July and will connect members of the community struggling with mental health conditions to local resources.
- Officer Parady will oversee the Gloucester Police Department’s third annual Safety Day, which will be held Sept. 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Harbor Loop. First responder agencies from across the state will be invited to display police, fire and other first responder vehicles. K-9s and community resource dogs will also be present, and attendees will have the opportunity to tour the local Coast Guard Station, food venders will be available, and more.
For the latest updates visit the Gloucester Police Department’s website here.