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In many cities and states, fatal drug overdoses—primarily from opioids—outnumber homicides, deaths from auto accidents, suicides and other types of fatalities. Law enforcement’s role is changing to address the challenges, according to research.
For decades, enforcing laws against illegal drug trafficking, drug dealing and drug possession was a primary role of police departments and sheriffs’ offices across the U.S., according to a report from the Police Executive Research Forum. However, the role of police and sheriffs has evolved as “demand-reduction policies,” efforts aimed at reducing the public desire for illegal and illicit drugs, have become prominent.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, opioids are a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant; they work in the brain to produce a variety of effects, including the relief of pain with many of these drugs. Opioids can be prescription medications often referred to as painkillers or they can be so-called street drugs, such as heroin, Johns Hopkins Medicine says.
Fatal opioid overdoses and the availability of increasingly lethal forms of opioids are a national crisis, according to the report. In many cities and states, fatal drug overdoses—primarily from opioids—outnumber homicides, deaths from auto accidents, suicides and other types of fatalities. After decreasing slightly in 2018, in 2020 opioid-related deaths began to increase again.
From January 2020 to January 2021, opioid-related deaths rose 38% across the U.S. and fatal overdoses involving synthetic opioids (including fentanyl) are the primary driver of the increase, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. More than 69,000 people died from opioid overdoses last year, with 57,500 deaths attributable to synthetic opioids.
Police responses to illegal drugs have expanded well beyond the approaches during the earliest years of the “Just Say No'' era of prevention of the 1980s and 1990s. According to History.com, the movement was part of the U.S. government's effort to revisit and expand the war on drugs. Rather than an automatic arrest for someone found with a rock of crack or a gram of heroin, police now consider how to divert that person out of the criminal justice system and get them into a treatment program.
“A significant challenge for addressing the opioid crisis is that there is not enough of a common understanding of the problem or the methods for solving it among the various partners (criminal justice system agencies, health organizations, legislators, etc.) to have an immediate, direct and sustained positive impact,” Apex, North Carolina Police Department Chief John Letteney told PERF.
New Responsibilities for Law Enforcement
According to the report, police responsibilities have grown to encompass at least three roles on the front lines of responding to the opioid crisis, which are:
- Emergency response: Preventing an opioid overdose from becoming a fatal opioid overdose.
- Public safety: Helping individuals protect themselves from opioid-related harms.
- Law enforcement: Investigating and disrupting opioid-related criminal activity.
All three of these roles influence the way law enforcement responds to the opioid crisis. For some responses, the police can serve all three roles at the same time. Disposal sites and take back events reduce the availability of unneeded prescription drugs that could cause accidental overdoses (emergency response) or be stolen and illegally used or sold (law enforcement).
Strategies for Resolving Conflicts
To help address this problem, PERF has identified five strategies to help police resolve conflicts and better serve all three of their roles. According to the report, these strategies are:
- Signal to the public that the local police are interested in helping the victims of opioid abuse and arresting those who are doing them harm.
- Develop relationships and maintain communications with opioid users after they have had an opioid-related encounter with the police.
- Inside the department, designate an individual or a team to focus on understanding how the department is responding to opioid cases.
- Outside the department, participate in multi-agency and cross-disciplinary collaborations to develop new response options and make more efficient use of limited resources.
- Ensure that officers understand how opioids affect a person’s body and mind.
For more information from the report click here.
Andre Claudio is an assistant editor at Route Fifty.