Police Step Up to Fight Opioid Epidemic

Frustrated with the continually rising number of opioid overdoses, law enforcement officials across the country are taking a more active role in combating the opioid epidemic, one that does not necessarily involve making arrests. A recent New York Times article describes how public officials, police chiefs and officers in communities nationwide are instead encouraging treatment and applying crime analysis techniques to trace drug sources and cut off supplies. The specific approach by each law enforcement community is different, but they are linked by the determination that the problem is a health epidemic, not a criminal one.

Law enforcement leaders are clear that they feel they can be more effective using greater discretion than previously attempted. The “war on drugs” of the late 1980s led to many arrests but little overall resolution to the crack epidemic, which created a vicious cycle of poverty and violence for those struggling with addiction and for their family members. This time, officers called in to revive overdose victims in Burlington, Vermont, are offering to take low-level offenders to treatment rather than arrest them, for example.

Police departments are testing other strategies as well. Some are increasing foot patrols, and cities are installing brighter streetlights in high-risk neighborhoods. Some are now investigating drug source networks with the same methods used for homicides, such as tracking the victim’s phone calls and analyzing digital data to track online drug sales. And they now issue warnings about particularly deadly formulations on the street, similar to the way health officials notify the public about infectious outbreaks. Many departments are working with social workers and public health officials and have increased the numbers of officers carrying naloxone, a medicine that can reverse an opioid overdose.

“It’s all about shifting from addiction as a crime to addiction as a disease,” said Jane Helmstetter of Vermont’s Agency of Human Services.

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