The nation’s opioid epidemic is changing the way law enforcement does its job, with police officers acting as drug counselors and medical workers and shifting from law-and-order tactics to approaches more akin to social work.
Departments accustomed to arresting drug abusers are spearheading programs to get them into treatment, convinced that their old strategies weren’t working. They’re administering medication that reverses overdoses, allowing users to turn in drugs in exchange for treatment, and partnering with hospitals to intervene before abuse turns fatal.
“A lot of the officers are resistant to what we call social work. They want to go out and fight crime, put people in jail,” said Capt. Ron Meyers of the police department in Chillicothe, Ohio, a 21-year veteran who is convinced that punitive tactics no longer work against drugs. “We need to make sure the officers understand this is what is going to stop the epidemic.”
Officers are finding children who were barricaded in rooms while their parents got high, and they are responding to the same homes for the same problems. Feelings of exasperation course through some departments in which officers are interacting with the same drug users over and over again, sometimes saving their lives repeatedly with naloxone, a drug that reverses an opiate overdose.
“You’re tired of dealing with this person because it saps your resources and it’s frustrating, and sometimes that manifests itself in a poor attitude or police officer becoming cynical or sarcastic,” said Officer Jamie Williamson of the police department in Ithaca, N.Y., where he said heroin is on every corner of the city. “But you want to get them the help so you don’t have to deal with them and so that person gets to a better place.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 33,000 people died from opiate overdoses in 2015, a record. Opioids now kill more people than car accidents, and in 2015 the number of heroin deaths nationwide surpassed the number of deaths from gun homicides. The expansion of the problem has forced officers to fundamentally rethink their work.
“When I came out of the police academy, it was law enforcement enforcing the law,” said Kevin Coppinger, the sheriff in Essex County, Mass., and a former police chief in Lynn, Mass. “Now police officers have to be generalists. You have to enforce the law, you have to be social-service workers and almost mental-health workers.”
Last Wednesday morning in Chillicothe, Meyers, Ross County Deputy Sheriff J. David Weber and three others sat in a conference room, reviewing police reports about six white men between the ages of 26 and 34 who overdosed the week before. One needed four doses of naloxone to survive.
The officers are part of the Ross County Post Overdose Response Team, known as PORT, which visits the home of each person in the county who overdosed during the prior week. Sometimes family members don’t know that their loved one overdosed, but most people are receptive to the intervention, said Teri Minney, the partnership’s coordinator.
The group provides information that includes a list of support group meetings, a brochure on how to contact treatment providers and detox centers and a primer on naloxone.
Weber said he and the team are blunt, telling victims that they are playing “Russian roulette.” Though the team hopes the person won’t use drugs again, it knows they likely will. So it implores them to do so in the presence of others, so someone can call for help.
“This is just one piece of the puzzle,” Minney said.
Police must also work as front-line social-service providers in homes where children are present during an overdose.
“We’re struggling to get them somewhere safe,” Meyers said. “You could send them to grandma’s house, but she’s also a heroin addict. You have to vet everyone who you send those kids to.”
Officials said drugs are taking a particular toll on children. In Martinsburg, W.Va., police have partnered with the Berkeley County Schools and Shepherd University to form the Martinsburg Initiative. It links schools, law enforcement, families and the community to help children who are living in traumatic situations, such as having an incarcerated parent or a history of domestic violence, and connects the families with available resources. Police Chief Maury Richards said it is based on data showing that children who grow up in dysfunctional households are more likely to use drugs.
“Unless we get a handle on this, it could really unravel our entire community and society as a whole,” Richards said.
Even run-of-the-mill calls such as shoplifting and car break-ins now have a drug connection, as do more serious ones like robberies. In large cities such as Cincinnati and small towns including Mount Sterling, Ky., calls for overdoses sometimes overwhelm local emergency response systems.
Louisville’s emergency medical services are making “overdose run after overdose run,” said spokesman Mitchell Burmeister. In February, the system received 52 overdose calls in 32 hours, most of which were believed to be related to heroin or fentanyl.
Authorities say last August provides an example of how a powerful batch of drugs can quickly cause devastation. In Ohio, 174 overdoses were reported in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, in less than a week. In Charleston, W.Va., 26 people overdosed in a matter of hours, as did 14 in Jennings County, Ind. In Mount Sterling — population 6,900 — at least 18 people overdosed in a matter of hours that month.
Police blame the spikes on a rash of potent synthetic drugs. They include fentanyl and carfentanil, an opiate typically used as a large animal tranquilizer that can kill people when taken in even minuscule amounts. According to the CDC, the number of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic drugs like fentanyl rose from 8 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2015.
Drugs that can kill instantly and massive spikes in overdose calls are the new normal, said Van Ingram, executive director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
“Drugs are being introduced into the illicit drug supply that are more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen before, and it’s taxing our law enforcement resources, our EMS resources, our emergency departments and hospitals, and it’s difficult to manage,” Ingram said.
These drugs also pose a danger for first responders. Many officers are now carrying extra doses of naloxone to use on officers or K-9s should they accidentally breathe in drugs or handle ones that are particularly potent. Other departments across the country no longer allow officers to process drugs at crime scenes because of the risk of exposure, instead sending the drugs directly to labs.
In Hartford, Conn., a doctor goes with police on raids so he can treat officers who might encounter drugs; he was on vacation when 11 SWAT officers were exposed to fentanyl and heroin that was atomized by a flash grenade the officers used to burst into a drug stash house, according to Hartford Deputy Chief Brian Foley. Three were sickened and all were sent to the hospital.
In Hamilton County, Ohio, which saw the rash of overdoses blamed on carfentanil last year, 414 people died of a drug overdose, compared with 298 the year before, according to the county coroner’s office.
Tom Synan, chief of the Newtown, Ohio, police department and a leader of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, said the staggering numbers are difficult because “we are in this job to help people” and often the resources are not there to do it correctly. He said his biggest source of frustration is sitting across from parents of drug addicts knowing there are few resources available that can help their children.
“Law enforcement has been forced to take the lead on this, and we probably are not the best profession to be doing this because our job really is to enforce laws,” he said, noting that he has seen family after family torn apart by addiction. He keeps in touch with the children of some who have died. “I never got into police work thinking I’d watch an entire generation die of drugs.”