Bangor police charged two men involved in running an unauthorized needle exchange in Pickering Square late last week and seized the exchange’s unused syringes, causing it to temporarily shut down.
The charges came months after a group of volunteers started regularly handing out clean syringes and the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, even though the group did not have a state permit to operate as a mobile syringe exchange. Bangor police had not charged any of its volunteers in connection with running the exchange until last Friday afternoon.
That’s when Zach Campbell, 25, was arrested on a charge of violating a condition of his bail because he had returned to Pickering Square to volunteer for the syringe exchange. Bangor police first arrested Campbell two weeks before, on Aug. 9, for interfering with another person’s arrest, and he was instructed not to return to Pickering Square.
Police issued Martin Chartrand, 32, of Bangor a court summons for illegal possession of hypodermic apparatus, along with a no-trespassing order for Pickering Square. Two other people in the group received no-trespassing orders but were not charged. Police also seized unused syringes from the group.
“We’re not quite sure why it had been decided to apprehend us that particular day,” Chartrand said. “We’ve been doing this for months.”
Chartrand had been volunteering with Needlepoint Sanctuary, the most recent volunteer-run group handing out naloxone, syringes and other supplies in Pickering Square, for about a month, he said.
Last Friday, Bangor police Officer Aaron Brooker apparently tried to reason with the group, repeatedly asking them to put the needles away. Chartrand refused, said Sgt. Wade Betters, the police department’s spokesman. Brooker issued the summons after multiple warnings and attempts to reach common ground with the group were unsuccessful, he said.
“We wanted to continue to do the service that we’re providing that saves people’s lives,” Chartrand said. “We’re now basically trying to figure out how to keep doing what we can in a way that doesn’t get us in trouble with the law because we just want to save people’s lives and do harm reduction.”
Brooker was at Pickering Square keeping an eye on the group because of previous complaints from downtown business owners about the syringe exchange, Betters said.
“The city has made repeated efforts to work with the group because we understand why their work is important,” he said. “Repeated attempts by the officer that day were unsuccessful because they would not comply.”
The exchange was initially run by a group called the Church of Safe Injection. The Bangor chapter of the church handed out more than 600 kits of naloxone and hundreds of clean syringes in its first six months of operation.
However, when Campbell and Chartrand were charged they were volunteering for Needlepoint Sanctuary Bangor, a separate but similar operation. Police are not sure whether it is the same group with a different name, but some Needlepoint Sanctuary volunteers are the same people who handed out supplies under the Church of Safe Injection.
Campbell declined to comment on Friday’s arrest. He said his first arrest was not related to his volunteering at the needle exchange.
His second arrest was technically only for being in Pickering Square, which violated his bail conditions, and he was not charged with possession of hypodermic apparatus as Chartrand was.
Through Facebook posts, Needlepoint Sanctuary Bangor has said it is working to find a different location for its exchange. “We’re not going away,” the group wrote in a recent post.
Bangor police and City Manager Cathy Conlow said the city is in full support of authorized syringe exchanges, such as one run by the Health Equity Alliance in Bangor. Under state rules, permitted groups running mobile syringe exchanges have to also have a fixed location, such as a clinic. They also have to run one-for-one exchanges, distributing a clean syringe only when someone turns in a used one and formally enroll their users.
Conlow said people have gotten hurt from needles in Pickering Square before.
“In the same way we distribute most medical supplies in a controlled environment, to ensure the safety of all the people who use Pickering Square, we want to make sure that needle exchange is done in a safe way,” she said.
Chartrand said the syringe exchange is located in Pickering Square to bring help to people who needed it instead of asking them to go to a fixed location like the Health Equity Alliance.
“You may reach someone that may not bother to go to the needle exchange,” he said.