Law Enforcement’s Role in the Opioid Epidemic

The opioid epidemic is taking its toll on American lives. More Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016 (64,070) than during the entirety of the Vietnam War (58,200).

About three-fourths of those deaths came from opioid drugs, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

The opioid epidemic continues to grow, and many of those fatalities can be attributed to synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil, which is an elephant tranquilizer that can cause fatality with just a few grains, according to a 2017 report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Of those who died from overdoses, almost a third (31%) were from synthetic opioid use.

No area of the country is safe from the epidemic. Heroin and its synthetic forms have affected virtually every part of the country as drug traffickers and dealers find new ways to disperse it.

According to PERF, the opioid crisis is the “most significant issue” police chiefs must deal with across the U.S. In October 2017, President Trump declared it a public health emergency.

Law enforcement agencies are creating new ways to fight the crisis, including officers taking on extra duties, adding specialized departments, and partnering with drug treatment facilities, social service providers, hospitals and the court system.

Taking on New Roles: Programs Beyond Jail

Many police officers and departments realize this problem must be solved outside of a jail cell, so they are creating new programs and ways to help addicts and overdose victims. The PERF report revealed that 23% of agencies have an “angel”-type program where police are proactive about helping drug users get treatment outside of the justice system. Nearly half have a diversion program that permits those arrested for possession to avoid prosecution if they enter some treatment program or work with a case manager.

One famous case that earned attention in the media was that of Baby Hope, a newborn adopted by a police officer who responded to a call involving her heroin-addicted parents. The officer tried to help the parents as well, and even convinced them to go to rehab, but in a December 2017 CNN story, it was revealed that they decided to avoid rehab and continue their behavior patterns. The officer still hopes to help them eventually.

Officers have started acting more like counselors and doctors when they respond to these cases. They work with overdose victims to get them into treatment, they dispense life-saving drugs like naloxone at the scene and work with hospitals to figure out the best way to intervene to avoid fatality.

“When I came out of the police academy, it was law enforcement enforcing the law,” said Essex County Sheriff Kevin Coppinger in an interview with the Washington Post. “Now police officers have to be generalists. You have to enforce the law, you have to be social-service workers and almost mental-health workers.”

Developing Specialized Departments

In Toledo, Ohio, the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office created a Drug Abuse Response Team (DART) for officers to assist overdose victims and addicts to break the patterns of behavior. According to a CNN article, over the past three years, members of DART have responded to over 2,400 overdose victims. In 2017, they saw an average of 18 per week. To create a feeling of trust, the officers don’t wear uniforms and drive regular cars. One of them said he wanted them to think of him as a counselor instead of a cop.

So far, the program seems to be yielding results – in the past few years, the unit saw an 81% success rate at getting addicts to enter a detox program, and the Ohio attorney general allocated $3 million to other state agencies to imitate it.

“I realized we weren’t going to arrest our way out of this epidemic,” said Lucas County Sheriff John Tharp and DART program creator to CNN. “In my view, addiction is not so much a crime as a disease… we don’t lock people up for having cancer. We help them.”

Partnering with Other Organizations

In New York City, where addiction runs rampant – 1,300 fatal drug overdoses were recorded last year, 1,100 were opioid-related – the NYPD is working with other groups to fight the growth of the epidemic.

“To put that in perspective, New York City had 335 homicides and 220 traffic fatalities… it’s not going to go away on its own,” said NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill in the PERF report. “That’s why we at the NYPD are proactively facing it head-on.”

Officials from the police department and New York health department formed a program called RxStat in 2012, which is a panel of 25 city officials who meet each quarterly to review the data and find gaps where the city can extend its response to the crisis.

By using data, panel members were able to determine that Staten Island had a higher overdose rate and a higher opioid prescription rate. They put together a strategy to heighten awareness and accountability for those who prescribed the drugs, as well as giving more officers training on naloxone and educating at-risk youth on drug abuse. After implementing the strategy, Staten Island had a 29% decrease in opioid-related deaths.

In a 2017 report, HealingNYC, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio writes that they want to make sure each New Yorker knows they won’t be let down.

“Their cry for help – their cry for this entire city to focus on saving lives – could not be clearer. We will do everything in our power to save lives,” DeBlasio said.

The city plans to invest $38 million each year, with a target goal to reduce opioid overdoses by 35% during the next five years.

Modeling these initiatives may work well for other cities and areas as well, as the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Bureau of Justice of Assistance have both said these programs could be a national model, according to the HealingNYC report.

The Future of Law Enforcement’s Role

Data-driven decisions will be key to law enforcement agencies and others working to tackle this mounting issue. According to a 2017 Vox article, a few steps are vital to stop the growth of this epidemic.

  1. Stop new generations from becoming users. Stricter regulations on opioids and opioid prescriptions can aid in giving law enforcement officers a chance to put a lid on this.
  2. It needs to be easier for addicts to get into rehab than obtaining drugs. Prevention strategies are important, but if addicts can’t get into programs to help them, it’s going to be difficult to kick the habit.
  3. Make drugs less dangerous if the problem can’t be stopped. People will inevitably still use no matter how many regulations are put in place. Several countries have adopted prescription heroin, which gives addicts a safer drug without the dangers of synthetic opioids like fentanyl. If naloxone was also easy to obtain, it would be easier for anyone to stop an overdose before it gets fatal.
  4. Work on issues that lead to addiction. Many factors can lead to addiction, including mental health issues, past trauma and economic despair. Only focusing on eliminating opioids will not address these underlying issues, and eventually people will turn to something else for their addictions.

Agencies, governments, professionals and the community will have to continue to work together to fight the epidemic – and by using clear data and extending tougher policies, they could save many American lives.

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