Photo by reynermedia, via Flickr
An increase in heroin overdose deaths and the legalization of marijuana in some places prompted many of the nation's police leaders to gather in Washington, D.C., yesterday for a "national summit" to discuss what the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), the event's organizer, termed a "fundamental shift" in thinking about drugs in the U.S. and its impact on policing.
"The country hasn't woken up" to the changes, partly because much of the national data on drug abuse are so out of date, said PERF executive director Chuck Wexler.
In an effort to fill some of the research gap, PERF took its own survey of 628 law enforcement organizations. One result, as noted yesterday in The Crime Report, was that even though marijuana and methamphetamine account for more arrests, heroin led the pack among responders as the most "problematic" illegal drug these days, with 36 percent of the vote.
Nearly 4 out of 5 responding agencies believe that drug overdoses are increasing in their areas, mostly heroin. Only 4 percent of police departments have their officers carry the heroin overdose antidote naloxone, although 31 percent are considering it.
The violent crime decrease in the U.S. in the last two decades has meant that in many areas, there are more serious drug overdoses than homicides.
An example is Camden, N.J., long infamous for its homicide total. Chief Scott Thomson of the Camden County Police Department said there have been 16 heroin overdoses that sent people, mostly suburban youths, to the hospital, more than the number of local teens who have been killed.
Many police chiefs at yesterday's session agreed that a public health approach to the overdoses is warranted. As new FBI director James Comey, who discussed the issue with the chiefs, said, "You can't arrest your way out of the problem."
Comey acknowledged that the FBI is preoccupied with national security and terrorism issues but vowed to have his 56 local agents-in-charge talk to police leaders about the drug issues in their areas.
A common theme among the chiefs was that getting addicts into treatment could be more effective in many cases than arresting them.
"We are there to save lives," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner and PERF President Charles Ramsey.
Jim Pugel, until recently Seattle's Interim Police Chief, described his city's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, a "harm reduction" approach that encourages police to send low-level, non-violent drug dealers and users to treatment and other services as an alternative to jail.
Police Lt. Tanya Smith of Holly Springs, Ga., told her colleagues of her 20-year-old daughter's drug overdose death last year and called for Good Samaritan laws that would protect from arrest people who call 911 about overdoses. In the case of Smith's daughter, friends dumped her body on a roadside rather than calling police.
With both health care and policing so fragmented in the U.S., it's not clear how the drug overdose problem will be addressed.
"I don't think the public health people have the same sense of urgency as we do," PERF's Wexler said.
Chicago Police Commissioner Garry McCarthy declared that "the lead on this (issue) is not law enforcement."
A recurring complaint at the summit was the dearth of current data on drug problems.
Thomas Carr of the Washington, D.C./Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Agency (HIDTA) said that law enforcement has had to subpoena information on drug cases from hospital officials who refuse to disclose it under the federal law protecting patient privacy.
The drug overdose problem is bound to generate more discussion around the nation as more suburban and rural youths turn to heroin as they are blocked from obtaining prescription drugs.
Allison Stombaugh of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration said the agency's reports from 1,226 local police agencies found 29 percent reporting that heroin was their greatest local drug problem, just under methamphetamines.
Michele Leonhart, DEA administrator, agreed with the chiefs that new, young heroin users were the biggest challenge, noting that 80 percent of new heroin users started out abusing prescription drugs.
Attorney General Eric Holder paid a visit to the summit and gave a plug to the public health approach to drugs. He said the Justice Department is "working with doctors, pharmacists, and other health professionals -- along with educators, community leaders, and police officers on the front lines--to identify and prevent controlled substance diversion during the health delivery process."
Holder also called on more training of first responders to use naloxone for overdose reversals, noting that 17 states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to increase access to it, reversing 10,000 overdoses since 2001.
Ted Gest is Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report, and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes comments from readers.