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10 opioid crisis actions for law enforcement

Police agencies are on the frontline of this crisis – here are 10 steps all chiefs and sheriffs need to take


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By PoliceOne Staff

As the nation grapples with an opioid epidemic that shows no signs of slowing down, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released an extensive report on the state of the crisis and how law enforcement agencies are combating the issue. This article outlines the 10 opioid crisis actions police chiefs and sheriffs can take as detailed in the PERF report.

1. Equip officers with naloxone

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)

The first action item in the PERF report is the one you’ve most likely done in your jurisdiction. If you haven’t, equipping cops with naloxone is one of the most important steps to combatting the opioid crisis. While outfitting LEOs with the overdose reversal drug has resulted in some debate among law enforcement, the bottom line is it saves lives – not only of addicts, but potentially officers and K-9s exposed to opioids during the course of their duties. In PERF’s survey, the organization found police agencies had already saved 3,500 lives with the drug. Multiple grants are available that can help fund the purchase of naloxone and other overdose-fighting tools.

The use of naloxone shouldn’t end with officers and emergency medical workers. PERF recommends police leaders spearhead efforts to distribute naloxone throughout hotspots in the community, such as drug treatment facilities and homeless shelters. These efforts can go a long way in breaking the stigma around opioid addiction – both among your officers and in the community at large.

2. Collect data

You can’t fight blind. Tracking the “who, how, when and where” of overdoses provides a clearer picture of the problem in your community. The Richmond Police Department in Virginia accomplished this by partnering with local hospitals, public health organizations, EMS and local government.

This data helped the agency in their investigations of dealers and in proactive outreach to addicts. And that last one is key – as you’ll see in many of these recommendations, establishing connections to victims of the opioid crisis in your community can not only help you save lives, but also aid in your investigative efforts. Keep in mind that fostering these relationships takes time so be sure your officers are prepared to be patient – this is a population traditionally averse to law enforcement.

3. Establish early warning systems

Like the Richmond Police Department, use data to map out hotspots, alert emergency services about spikes in overdoses and warn community members when potentially lethal drugs are circulating. Knowing when there’s a spike in your area can help you take action before things get out of control.

4. Use Compstat principles

It is best practice to apply Compstat principles to how you approach the opioid crisis. PERF used the example of the NYPD’s RxStat system, which they base on:

5. Get users into treatment

Naloxone saves lives, but it doesn’t get to the root of the issue. Victims of the opioid crisis need access to treatment to break their addiction, and law enforcement has an important role in creating pathways of care. As previously mentioned, you can and should use the data you’re collecting on overdoses to establish relationships in those areas most impacted and offer both proactive and reactive treatment. At IACP 2017, Jac Charlier, National Director for Justice Initiatives, Center for Health and Justice at TASC, highlighted five pre-arrest diversion frameworks in use at many agencies:

  • Naloxone plus: Engaging with an overdose victim about treatment options after administering naloxone. The “plus” is the second life-saving effort you’re offering – treatment – after you’ve saved the victim’s life with a naloxone dose. Some models your agency can follow include the STEERQRT and DART programs.
  • Active outreach: Police initially seek and ID individuals they believe are in need of help and make a warm handoff (introduce the addict to a behavioral health professional in person) for treatment. Some examples of these are PAARI and QRT.
  • Self-referral: Addicts initiate contact with law enforcement, which then makes a warm handoff to treatment. You need to inform your community members that they can come to your agency for help with their addiction without fear of being arrested. The Angel and PAARI programs are some examples your agency can adopt.
  • Officer prevention referral: When officers encounter someone engaged in illegal drug use, they do not file charges but instead initiate treatment engagement. Examples include LEAD and STEER.
  • Officer intervention referral: A less commonly used option; the officer suspends charges against the person engaged in illegal drug activity in exchange for the completion of drug treatment. Examples include CCNLEAD and STEER.

Whatever strategies you adopt, collaboration with public health and other community partners is key. And most important, time is critical. The longer treatment is delayed, the more likely an addict won’t be receptive to getting help. Some agencies deploy officers and outreach workers within 48 hours of an overdose. Others can get drug users seeking inpatient treatment a bed within 90 minutes of contact.

6. Offer treatment program in jails

Incarceration is another opportunity for opioid users to get clean, and local corrections facilities should offer detox treatment options. Officials in Atlantic County, New Jersey, which offers a medication-assisted treatment program in its jail, found participants in the program have a lower rate of recidivism than the general population.

7. Target enforcement and prosecution strategically

Consider how you’re targeting your enforcement. What is the end goal? One approach, according to PERF, is to target offenders with the goal of reducing overdose deaths, such as focusing on dealers who sell near drug treatment facilities or other areas where potential buyers are trying to get clean.

8. Educate the public

Education about the risks of opioid use goes a long way to preventing addiction, and also works to break the stigma around those who are addicted to opioids. As cited in the PERF report, four out of five heroin addicts begin with prescription opioids, and prescription drugs have been the culprit in thousands of opioid deaths. The Arlington Police Department in Massachusetts, whose chief of police also serves as the co-chair of the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI) and co-authored the “Ten Standards of Care” guide to policing in the opioid crisis, puts a lot of focus on education. The agency holds public meetings co-facilitated by a clinician and a certified interventionist on a range of subjects – from the dangers of opioid use, to training on how to use naloxone, to information on various treatment programs.

9. Work with partners

The success of your efforts is heavily tied to your partnerships with public health agencies and related entities. Data collection requires collaboration. Intervention requires collaboration. Education requires collaboration. Many police departments enlist public health clinicians to co-respond with officers to outreach calls before and after overdoses. Others partner with their DA to create buyer diversion programs. Any hope of providing immediate treatment services to addicts (remember, time is critical) hinges on your partnerships with treatment providers.

10. Encourage safety for officers  

Officer safety is paramount, both in terms of safety from opioid exposure and mental health considerations for officers who have formed bonds with opioid addicts or respond to multiple overdose incidents (particularly ones involving children). The rollercoaster of addiction can take a toll on those who work with the victim – officers working with addicts can become frustrated or overwhelmed when they relapse or recovery takes longer than expected. There is also the potential for trauma if one of the addicts an officer has been working with fatally overdoses. These are all considerations that police leaders need to be prepared for.  

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