Tuesday, July 16, 2024

A pedestrian and bicyclist meet March 16 on Beacon Street in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The establishment of a drug overdose prevention site is back on track, Somerville city councilors heard at a Monday meeting of their Health and Human Services Committee covering issues from traffic enforcement to gun violence and mental health.

 The city’s Health and Human Services Department was distracted from the issue by responding to the sudden closing of the Winter Hill elementary school in early June for safety concerns, department director Karin Carroll said.

“We’ve had a busy season and a very disruptive one … a lot of our city team members have had to pivot to deal with that situation. But we continue to navigate and work on this,” Carroll said, referring to a drug overdose prevention site. “The next steps are complicated.”

There’s $997,000 budgeted to start with a modular unit – a temporary structure that could be relocated, with city-owned parking lots in Davis Square and East Somerville mentioned as likely sites in a report commissioned by the city. The city is looking at three spots – which were not specified – but is open to widening the search, Carroll said. She wasn’t able to estimate when the selection process would be complete, she said.

Overdose prevention sites let people bring in potentially dangerous drugs to take under the supervision of medical personnel or peer staff, with sterile needles and other equipment. The sites can provide support services and medical care. Somerville’s modular unit will be run by a program director and three community health workers, one of whom will be focused on prevention. The program director will be responsible for developing procedures and conducting hiring processes.

Somerville, like the rest of Massachusetts, has experienced an increase in fatal overdoses in the past year, and opioids are increasingly being contaminated with a sedative known as xylazine that a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration administrator said makes “the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier.”

The committee discussed overdose-prevention initiatives to put in place while awaiting the overdose prevention site: improving Narcan availability through vending machines, and increasing the number of sharps collection boxes in public spaces such as library bathrooms. Councilor Charlotte Kelly asked for a list of sharps and syringe collection locations.

Massachusetts is looking to add overdose prevention centers throughout the state. The Department of Public Health is conducting a feasibility study intended to produce a report by the end of 2023. Cambridge began exploring in June the possibility of setting up its own overdose prevention center, but Somerville is on track to be the first city in Massachusetts to have one.

Cycling enforcement

Councilors also consulted with Police Capt. James Donovan on cyclist enforcement stops and unmarked traffic patrol vehicles.

Since getting a $17,238 state grant in June for for “pedestrian and bike enforcement,” Somerville police have issued written warnings to 198 cyclists violating traffic laws focused on high-volume areas such as Beacon Street, Donovan said. The department avoids issuing fines.

“All this enforcement is educational. We’re not looking to punish anyone or hurt anybody,” Donovan said.

There’s no official policy for the use of fines in repeat cycling offenses, though, which leaves it to officer discretion. Officers on patrol stops do not have access to previous warning data, so a cyclist would be fined only if they broke the same traffic law multiple times in front of the same officer – and that officer remembered the details of the offense well enough to decide a monetary citation was necessary. Donovan claimed cyclists had less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of being fined.

Beyond education, issuing warnings is useful for data collection, a condition of the grant SPD has used to fund these efforts. When an officer issues a warning, information such as location and time of day is reported back to the state.

Donovan has concerns about safety as bicycling become more common. Though he described the majority of cyclists as “well educated and very, very safe,” he hopes enforcement efforts will reach those who may have begun riding recently as a result of more available Bluebikes and other initiatives.

Twenty-three percent of the grant funding is spent on cycling enforcement efforts, while the rest is divided among other initiatives such as reducing distracted driving. Councilor Lance Davis asked that more go to minimizing distracted driving, which is more likely to cause collisions. Donovan gave no indication this request would be honored, noting that though cyclists may typically not be at fault, they are still “the most vulnerable” road users and educational warnings could help protect them.

Donovan also pledged to move forward with marking the department’s one remaining unmarked vehicle used for traffic stops. It cannot be marked in a traditional way, because it isn’t the permanent property of the Somerville Police Department, he said. The police chief is looking into using magnetic markings instead, a task Donovan estimates will be done within three months. The delay is due to logistical concerns regarding selecting and ordering magnets.

A gun buyback program was discussed briefly but kept in committee to get more information from councilor Willie Burnley Jr., who wanted the issue explored but wasn’t at the online meeting.