Breaking the stigma around opioid addiction

As police agencies rethink LE’s role in the opioid epidemic, it’s important to be prepared to navigate pushback both internally and within the community


This feature is part of our PoliceOne Digital Edition, a supplement to PoliceOne.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing police chiefs and police officers everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Summer 2018 issue, click here.

By Cole Zercoe, P1 Senior Associate Editor

As police agencies rethink law enforcement’s role in the opioid epidemic, it’s important to be prepared to navigate pushback both internally and within the community. In fact, Arlington (Mass.) Chief of Police Fred Ryan, who also serves as the co-chair of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) and co-authored the John Hopkins-backed “Ten Standards of Care” guide to policing in the opioid crisis, believes breaking the stigma associated with drug use is the biggest challenge agencies face in fighting the opioid crisis.

“I'm ashamed to say that we've all labeled these people junkies and dehumanized them in other ways over the years largely due to ignorance around addiction and all the complications that go with it,” Ryan said. “We look at substance use very differently as a society than other medical conditions, and I think that's the biggest challenge.”

In this Nov. 2, 2017, file photo, Cincinnati police officers, firefighters and medics respond to a possible overdose report at a hotel in downtown Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
In this Nov. 2, 2017, file photo, Cincinnati police officers, firefighters and medics respond to a possible overdose report at a hotel in downtown Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Ryan has tackled this issue in his agency in a number of ways. For one, the department internally prohibited the use of the word “junkie.”

“We've done a lot of work around the language we use associated with substance disorder in the community. Language matters,” Ryan said.

Another key step was holding a number of community meetings that taught the public about topics such as the nature of addiction, proper use of naloxone and substance user treatment programs.

“To have their police chief stand in front of a crowd and talk about how stigma is preventing people from getting the help that they need, and from learning about the complications associated with addiction and how best to prevent fatal overdose has really helped break the stigma,” Ryan said.

Seeing the fruits of their labor also goes a long way to alleviating any hesitation police officers have with treating victims of opioid overdoses, Ryan says. As officers begin to save lives with Narcan, the positivity about carrying the drug builds. That feeling of worthwhileness strengthens even further once an agency has moved beyond just carrying Narcan and starts acting as a bridge to treatment services. In Quincy, Massachusetts – home to one of the most well-known Narcan programs in the United States – Lt. Patrick Glynn says the frustration of responding to repeat ODs was alleviated when officers had resources to provide addicts and saw them taking advantage of those resources.

“What has eased the frustration and some of the burn out for some of the officers here is seeing the results of the home visits that we do,” Glynn said. “The fact that we're able to give people information and seeing people leave their home and go into a program.”

Glynn also said it’s important to be aware of and dispel myths within your agency and in the community – that Narcan will bring more drug users into the community and that treating ODs enables drug users.

Finally, officers should be educated in the nature of addiction and have a realistic idea of what the timeframe and process for recovery looks like. In particular, relapse of a patient should not be viewed as failure.

“In a crisis as difficult and complex as this one, there will be those cases unfortunately. And we can't allow outcomes like that to prevent or in any way inhibit our good work,” Ryan said. “Relapse is seen by many as a failure and we say no, relapse is part of the long-term recovery. So do you measure relapse as a failure? We would say no as long as a person's alive. Our one North Star has been preventing death by opioid overdose. And if you give cops simple, achievable goals, they get it done.”


About the Author
Cole Zercoe is the senior associate editor of PoliceOne. From the latest police technologies and innovations to the emerging threats cops face in the digital age, his features focus on the complexity of policing in the modern world.

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