Police in small towns in Ohio and Massachusetts may have started a trend: releasing photos of unconscious drug addicts, to dramatically show the public what officers encounter on a daily basis as opioid abuse explodes across America. The photos of a man and woman passed out in the front seat of an SUV in East Liverpool, Ohio, and video of a woman lying on the floor of a discount store in Lawrence, Mass., being prodded by a terrified child, have gone viral and brought the hard reality of addiction home to millions who’ve never imagined its real life impact.
But is that a good idea? Experts in drug addiction and policing said it is not, that it merely shames the user and adds stigma to those suffering from a disease, though they understood the frustration of first responders who should not have to shoulder the burden of an erupting public health crisis.
“What helps is helping people get help,” said Patty McCarthy Metcalf of Faces & Voices of Recovery in Washington, D.C., a national advocacy group for addiction treatment and recovery. “Helping people see they can recover. What doesn’t work is public shaming. It just reinforces the negative public perception we’re trying to eliminate. Stigma is one of the major reasons people don’t get help when they need it.”
“Publishing photos of unconscious individuals regardless of the circumstance,” said Adam Brooks of the Treatment Research Institute in Philadelphia, “is an insensitive and demoralizing approach to teach anyone a ‘lesson.’ People struggling with addiction are dealing with a serious, chronic health condition that can’t be curbed through shaming. Would we post a photo of someone suffering a diabetic coma because they didn’t take their medication? Absolutely not.”
Local police are limited in the ways they can deal with recurring issues, whether it’s a particular crime trend or mental illness or drug addiction, and one tool they have is to raise awareness. After posting two photos of Rhonda L. Pasek and James L. Acord unconscious, with a four-year-old boy in the backseat, East Liverpool, Ohio’s public safety director Brian Allen told The Post’s Christopher Ingraham his county had been overwhelmed by the opioid problem and doesn’t have enough places to send people who have become addicted to the powerful drugs. “We have no place to send them,” he said. “We arrest them, they go back out and they do it again…Sometimes the truth is hard to see, and that’s what this photo is. The truth.”
East Liverpool’s police chief, John Lane, told Cleveland’s Fox 8 News, “Enough already. People need to know what is happening. This picture is graphic, it’s disturbing. I need people to get upset and help us take back the streets. I need the presidential candidates to look at this and tell me what they will do to fix it.”
Less than two weeks later, police in Lawrence, Mass., released video shot by a Family Dollar store employee of a woman lying on the floor while a toddler pokes and yells at her, trying to rouse her. The woman later told a Boston television station she had snorted fentanyl, a synthetic opioid pain medication. As with East Liverpool, the drug-abusing adult was accompanied by a small child, multiplying the drama.
Police in East Liverpool and Lawrence did not return messages Monday asking what feedback they had received from their communities, or from their drug treatment centers. Lawrence police Chief James Fitzpatrick told The Post’s Peter Holley, “It’s heartbreaking to see a child in that situation,” he said. “We do see children in these kind of situations at times, and it shows you the power of addiction.” In both cases, the children have been taken into foster care by child protective services and the adults were charged with endangering the child’s welfare.
So the police did what they could do within the system. And then they released the defendants’ photos in the throes of addiction, to let the public know how serious this problem is.
“I truly appreciate efforts by police to try to draw attention to” rising opioid abuse, said Amanda Burgess-Proctor, a criminal justice professor at Oakland University. “But it’s a bad idea because it dehumanizes and solicits judgment and ultimately furthers people’s perception of heroin addicts as terrible people.” She said the photos are “reaching the people who don’t have a high risk of using. We need the audience to feel invested in initiatives that are going to respond to this. I don’t think this does that.”
Burgess-Proctor noted that “law enforcement officers are dealing with significant public health problems, and they’re not equipped to deal with it. That’s not an indictment of police. They need all the help they can get. But these fear-based tactics don’t advance it.”
Burgess-Proctor and Ojmarrh Mitchell, criminology professor at the University of South Florida, both said that the use of such photos is unlikely to be a successful deterrent to those considering heroin or opioid abuse. “For people thinking about it, it might have a minimal effect,” Mitchell said. “But that’s speculative. There’s no empirical evidence of that.” Mitchell said that high-dollar anti-drug campaigns from the 1980s such as “Just Say No” and “This is Your Brain on Drugs” did not work. “And they cost a lot of money,” he added.
Mitchell noted that a bigger deterrent to drug use would be becoming a victim of violent crime, which many hard drug users become. “If that doesn’t work, what do you think a picture is going to do?” Mitchell asked. “I don’t blame police departments for trying this. For trying something. They are frustrated. But don’t expect it to work.”
Drug treatment experts like Metcalf and Henry R. Kranzler, director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania medical school, said adding to the stigma of drug addiction is more likely to chase away those who may seek help. An implied message from the photos, Kranzler said, “is that they’re subhuman. And that’s part of the problem, that we extrude these people from society. And that’s infuriating. It’s sensationalist and a poor excuse for doing something about the problem on a societal level.”
Kranzler said governments should focus more on the easy availability of opioids, that “pharmaceutical manufacturers really have been allowed to go hog wild. It ends up finding its way to the black market. I think this is not unlike the gun argument. When guns are more available, people get shot more. When drugs are available, people abuse them.”
Metcalf said 125 people are dying daily from drug overdoses nationwide. “We need to treat it as a health care issue,” she said. “Public shaming, we’ve never had that happen with any other public health care issue. It just contributes to the stigma, and people will not reach out for help. What we need to do is flip it, show the hope of recovery. If they can access the treatment and recovery services, they can begin the path to recovery and get the help they need for addiction.”
Metcalf noted that “police are in an excellent position for that moment of opportunity,” to offer help when an addict is at their lowest. And some police departments are doing that. In Prince William County in 2014, police launched a series of raids and immediately offered to take the suspects to drug treatment, after they were booked. Of the 53 arrested, six accepted the offer.