How The Opioid Epidemic Is Changing Police Work

By Kelly Burch 03/15/17

Law enforcement are beginning to embrace their evolving roles in the midst of the addiction crisis. 

A brigade of New York policemen.

With the opioid epidemic gripping big cities and small towns across the nation, police officers and departments are changing their approach and policy, and taking on new roles focused more on social work and community support than maintaining law and order. 

“When I came out of the police academy, it was law enforcement enforcing the law,” said Sheriff Kevin Coppinger of Essex County, Massachusetts, who is a former police chief from the town of Lynn, according to 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.”

Increasingly, police departments are realizing that locking up addicts is doing little to stem drug usage. This has meant that more departments are starting policies aimed at getting people into treatment, rather than jail. 

One of the first programs was the Angel Initiative in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which allows people who are addicted to turn in their drugs at the police department and be connected with drug treatment. Since it began in 2015, the Gloucester program has grown into the Police-Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which helps departments around the country develop similar programs. 

Growing acceptance of programs like these among officers is critical to helping people who are addicted to opioids. In that case, traditional police tactics and legal punishments don’t work, said Captain Ron Meyers of the police department in Chillicothe, Ohio.

“A lot of the officers are resistant to what we call social work. They want to go out and fight crime, put people in jail,” said Meyers, who has been an officer for 21 years. “We need to make sure the officers understand this is what is going to stop the epidemic.”

Dealing with overdose victims, administering naloxone, and helping children whose parents have overdosed, can all be draining for officers. 

“You’re tired of dealing with this person because it saps your resources and it’s frustrating, and sometimes that manifests itself in a poor attitude or police officer becoming cynical or sarcastic,” said Officer Jamie Williamson of the police department in Ithaca, New York. “But you want to get them the help so you don’t have to deal with them and so that person gets to a better place.”

However, many officers are frustrated that they do not have the resources to help effectively, says Tom Synan, chief of the Newtown, Ohio, police department and a leader of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition.

“Law enforcement has been forced to take the lead on this, and we probably are not the best profession to be doing this because our job really is to enforce laws,” said Synan. “I never got into police work thinking I’d watch an entire generation die of drugs.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.