Opioid Epidemic Changes, Challenges Police Departments

By Kelly Burch 06/14/17

The opioid crisis has changed the way police departments around the nation are interacting with people who use drugs.

a row of police officers

In Burlington, Vermont a man was overdosing on opioids for the second time in 10 days. Even as a police officer followed him to the emergency room, the man tried to resist help. The officer, however, insisted. 

“If you need help, we’ll drive you to treatment right now,” the officer told the man.

The incident is just one example of how police departments around the nation are changing how they interact with those who use drugs. According to a New York Times report, police around the country are struggling to help people who use drugs while also keeping up with the demands of an epidemic that is killing people at the highest rates ever

In Burlington, police launched an initiative called SubStat—for tracking users who move into neighboring communities—and hired an opiate policy coordinator for the department. 

“It’s all about shifting from addiction as a crime to addiction as a disease,” said Jane Helmstetter of Vermont’s human services agency.

The man who overdosed found himself working with the opiate police coordinator and the chief of police in order to access treatment. The positive interaction surprised the man’s mother, who asked to remain anonymous. 

“He wasn’t just treated as a drug addict and someone that wasn’t worthy of help,” she said. “Here you have a police chief sitting in the same room with a drug addict that knowingly uses illegal substances and he’s not going to handcuff him? It was unusual.”

Unlike the crack cocaine epidemic of the late '80s, the opioid epidemic has brought around a realization that a strict law-and-order policy on its own cannot stop drug addiction. 

“The police can play a critical role in a very broadly based social and medical response,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “So if people think we are going to arrest our way out of the opioid crisis, they’re wrong.”

However, despite a more compassionate attitude toward addiction, police officers maintain that drugs often lead to violence, and they do not shy away from that reality in the opioid epidemic. 

“In almost all of our major seizures and arrests, we’re encountering weapons,” said Chuck Rosenberg, acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “And there’s only one reason to have those around.”

Officers who respond to hundreds of overdose calls each year are also dealing with compassion fatigue as overdose rates continue to climb.

“We’ve been at this for, now, four or five years, and the overdose numbers continue to go up,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “What’s going to be the defining moment to move this in a different direction?”

Last month, Wexler facilitated a conference in New York City for law enforcement leadership. There, officers talked about how best to fight the epidemic and also about the nuances of doing so. How can officers tell whether someone is a user in need of treatment or a mid-level dealer? How can officers take a compassionate approach to low-level offenders when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is mandating harsher sentencing?

At the conference, J.Scott Thomson, the police chief in Camden, New Jersey, presented a grim outlook: “We are still losing,” he said.

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