Staten Island Is Investigating Overdose Deaths For Links To Drug Dealers

By Keri Blakinger 02/26/16

Starting March 1, police will begin reporting overdose deaths to prosecutors and interviewing relatives of the deceased to track down the source of the drugs. 

Staten Island Investigating Overdose Deaths For Links To Drug Dealers
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The New York City borough of Staten Island has had a record number of overdose deaths in 2014, and local officials are looking to prosecute. In an effort to better identify and arrest those accused of dealing drugs, the borough announced a new plan called the Overdose Response Initiative, which the Staten Island Advance described as “a law enforcement program designed to closely investigate overdose deaths.”

At a time when other localities—like the upstate city of Ithaca—are proposing radically forward-thinking plans to favor treatment and harm reduction over prosecution, Staten Island seems to be taking a step in a different direction. 

"As we all know, Staten Island is facing loss to overdose deaths at an alarming rate," said District Attorney Michael E. McMahon. "Simply stated, our loved ones are dying ... My office is determined and committed to hunting down drug dealers, aggressively prosecuting them and sending them to prison."

Borough President James Oddo lamented the borough's long history of prescription drug use. “It's simultaneously frustrating and heart-breaking. Our history is we wrote the most [painkiller] prescriptions for the biggest pills for the longest duration. We are pushing back on every front,” he said.

Under the new initiative, police and prosecutors will gather information about the deceased, as well as the manner and location of death. There will also be a full toxicology exam to determine whether or not the drug was cut with another substance. Detectives will reach out to family members “in a sensitive and caring manner” to find out more about the decedent’s activities. They will seek permission from family members to search the cell phone of the deceased for information that could link the death to other overdoses, looking for similarities. 

The goal is to use all that information to track down the source of the drugs. 

"Heroin is a tremendous public safety risk," said Bridget Brennan, the city's special narcotics prosecutor. "We need to treat an overdose as a homicide. We need to devote all our tools to it."

While this could mean that users who are selling to support their addictions could end up facing murder or manslaughter charges, the executive director of the Staten Island drug treatment center Camelot Counseling Services, Luke Nasta, tried to frame the initiative in a positive light.

"A partnership between law enforcement and treatment will absolutely have the desired results," said Nasta. "Coercion will not rehabilitate, but it will introduce a person to treatment."

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.