It is abundantly clear at this point that the opioid epidemic in America is not showing signs of letting up anytime soon. Meanwhile, bodies are piling up as Federal, state and local public health and public safety agencies work together and do their best to curtail and prevent further opioid overdose deaths. While the police often pledge to partner with all other agencies that have a nexus to the opioid epidemic, at the end of the day, ground zero for the opioid epidemic is on the streets and in private dwellings where the police encounter opioid overdose tragedies up close and personal.
The opioid epidemic or crisis has been active for several years and although law enforcement agencies have been investigating, arresting and prosecuting opioid drug traffickers all along, it barely seems to have reduced the epidemic or the number of opioid overdose deaths. This is not to suggest that arrest and prosecution of drug traffickers, also known as interdiction, is obsolete or should be diminished in any way; it is only to suggest that we need additional strategies and techniques, and for local law enforcement it means we also need to form partnerships outside the paradigm of policing. Beyond our robust interdiction efforts, we need to partner more than ever with the educational community to help them develop more and better methods of drug prevention education; and with the public health community to help them develop better methods of intervention and counselling for existing opioid addicts.
In order to reduce the rate at which people become addicted to opioids we need to open their eyes to the perils of it before they experiment or become addicted. The audience for that kind of education is in schools starting from early elementary and likely all the way through early college. All the interdiction and intervention in the world is not going to impact the epidemic unless new victims stop entering the cycle of using gateway drugs to opioid addiction to opioid overdose death. Without a doubt, the education piece of the solution is not an easy piece, but it can be best accomplished through collaboration between the public safety community and the educational community.
As to intervention with opioid addicts, we have a good idea who the next opioid overdose death victim(s) will be, and if something is predictable, it is preventable. The next victims of fatal overdoses are those who have survived a recent opioid overdose, usually because a police officer, paramedic or doctor has administered NARCAN®. Therefore, if a partnership of police, paramedics, and private drug treatment providers can reach out to known addicts in an organized way in order to persuade them to seek professional drug treatment and counselling, they stand a fighting chance of avoiding their inevitable opioid overdose death. Most who are familiar with addiction know this is not an easy sell unless the addict is ready, but it may be made easier by enlisting the help of recovering addicts who can relate and help show them the way. Most addicts are not hardcore criminals but rather desperate people, some of whom have an underlying mental illness, trying to cope with a condition that has grown out of their control. It is important to remember they are our sons, daughters, husbands, wives, neighbors and friends.
Advocates of traditional policing may argue that it is outside the scope of policing to get involved in drug prevention or intervention. Nevertheless, those who advocate community policing, which is above all about proactive crime prevention; as well as those who advocate evidence-based policing which is about initiatives that work for public safety; understand that the police are sworn to protect people any way we can. Sometimes protecting people means protecting them from hurting themselves. Oftentimes it also means picking up the slack when other institutions of government are overwhelmed with a plethora of social problems. Either way, the police have to adjust to deal with modern day menaces to the people we are sworn to protect. Right now the opioid epidemic is a menace that must be addressed, and the police can do the most good by attacking it in a strategic way.
Dan Flynn is the Marietta Police Chief.