Many people get into law enforcement for the opportunity to take criminals off the streets and lock them up for their crimes. Increasingly, however, law enforcement officers are confronted with people with substance abuse disorders, particularly opioid addictions. A report from September 2017 by the Police Executive Research Forum discusses this phenomenon.
Police departments throughout the US are realizing that putting addicts in jail does little or nothing to stop drug use. As a result, many departments are beginning initiatives aimed at putting substance abusers into treatment rather than jail, and that requires officers to modify traditional police tactics that have proven ineffective. Police officers are also taking on new responsibilities, including responsibilities for rapid testing of confiscated substances and direct aid to people who have overdosed on opioids.
Police Must Test Substances Quickly to Detect Bad Substances
When law enforcement responds to a fatal overdose, one task they want to expedite is testing of the substance that caused the overdose. Increasingly, police departments are working with public health agencies to accelerate such testing so that any overdose clusters or new batches of particularly dangerous substances can be identified as quickly as possible. In particular, they want to find batches of heroin that are mixed with fentanyl or carfentanil, which make the drug far deadlier.
At the same time, when such dangerous batches are identified, police must be careful about how they notify the public and local health care and addiction recovery specialists. Unfortunately, there are people with hardened addictions that will seek out dealers believed to have these particularly strong products, and the consequences can be catastrophic.
More Police Are Intervening to Directly Help Overdose Victims
In addition to expediting testing of confiscated substances, police are also more likely to be involved in directly helping overdose victims. When people experience nonfatal opioid overdoses, police may be first on the scene, and many departments are training officers in the administration of medications like Narcan.
Furthermore, because of the serious dangers in the immediate 12 to 24 hours following a nonfatal overdose, some police departments are providing follow-up the next day, often in the company of public health clinicians. Their goal is not arresting people, but helping connect them with addiction treatment resources. Rarely do overdose victims turn away this help.
Police Are Educating the General Public About Prescription Opioid Risks
Police are also taking on increased responsibility for educating the general public as well as medical professionals. Opioid addiction today is a very different phenomenon than it was a decade or two ago. An estimated 80 percent of today’s heroin addicts originally became addicted to prescription painkillers, and several jurisdictions in the hardest-hit states such as Ohio and West Virginia are suing or considering suing pharmaceutical companies, alleging that they share responsibility for widespread heroin abuse.
The opioid epidemic, which killed over 64,000 people in 2016, has changed how law enforcement does its job. Police are more frequently called upon to perform duties normally assigned to social workers and medics as overdoses increase in frequency. Officers that are accustomed to arresting drug users are likelier now to work to connect people with substance abuse disorders with the addiction treatment services they so desperately need.
The takeaway is that in the event of an overdose, a person should not be afraid of the law enforcement personnel that may show up. They may, in fact, have the training to prevent a fatality and help people with opioid use disorders to get into addiction treatment. If you are struggling with an opioid use disorder, alcoholism, or another addiction, we urge you to contact us at any time. Addiction treatment works, and it works better the sooner it is initiated.
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