New Overdose Tracking System Being Tested By Police In Massachusetts

By Kelly Burch 08/17/17

"It's really a death prevention project."

Police officer emergency service car driving street with siren light blinking

Twenty-seven police departments in Massachusetts are testing a new system designed to track all opioid overdoses, including non-fatal overdoses, in hopes of getting more people into treatment for addiction. 

"This is really a death prevention project," said Sean Varano, an associate professor at the School of Justice Studies at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. "That sounds like hyperbole, but when someone overdoses today and they're not in treatment, their chances of dying in the next month are exponentially greater. So how do we understand that and play a role so they don't die?”

Varano designed the program along with Pam Kelley with Kelley Research Associates in Massachusetts, according to U.S. News and World Report. Using the system, police departments record every overdose call that they respond to. Within 24 hours of a non-fatal overdose, a plain-clothes police officer and a recovery coach visit the victim at their house in order to discuss treatment options. 

If the victim is from another town, the police department in that town is notified of the overdose and does the follow-up visit. 

"We know people suffering from the crisis don't just overdose in their town," said Scott Allen, police chief in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where the program is being tested. "And if we're not sharing that information in real time, we're missing opportunities to get people into treatment."

Allen worked with the police chief in neighboring Plymouth to bring the system to Plymouth County, an area on the southeast coast of Massachusetts that has seen more than 1,000 overdoses this year. 

In addition to facilitating talk about treatment, the program is also designed to track overdose data in real-time, rather than relying on older data that only tracks fatal overdoses. Allen said that he will be monitoring the data closely for increases in overdose rates that could indicate that fentanyl is becoming more prevalent in the area. 

Faced with the ever-expanding opioid crisis, police departments around the country are searching for innovative solutions, despite the Trump administration’s pressure to return to a policy of stricter arrests and prosecutions. 

“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. “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.”

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