As opioid overdoses continue to take the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year, the epidemic has made many jurisdictions and public agencies that deal with health and safety reconsider long-held attitudes. Several cities are moving, for example, to establish safe-injection sites, something that would have been unthinkable to most local officials and policymakers just a few years ago. Medicaid programs have begun offering alternative methods of pain management, such as yoga and acupuncture, before prescribing opioids. And for police departments, an arrest-first mentality is beginning to give way to more compassionate approaches aimed at helping people struggling with addiction.
Two years ago, a handful of police departments began requiring officers -- frequently the first to encounter a victim -- to carry naloxone, the life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. There is still pushback from some departments that don’t see helping addicts as their responsibility, but that view is dwindling. According to the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, at least 1,200 police departments around the country now have some kind of program that equips officers with naloxone.
The Colorado Springs, Colo., Police Department was one of the first to do so. “As a cop, if we can even just help to stabilize those numbers, that will be a victory for me,” Thor Eells, who was a commander with the department at the time the policy went into effect, told Governing in 2016.
But for many police officers, it’s been a mindset shift. “Our officers were skeptical, but it’s been going well with no strain on staffing,” says Sgt. Baron Brown of the Ferndale, Mich., Police Department. The Detroit-area force is a part of Hope Not Handcuffs, an initiative that allows anyone struggling with substance abuse to go without fear of arrest to a participating police department, which will work to place the person in a recovery program. Hope Not Handcuffs kicked off in February 2017 with police departments across five counties taking part. As of this June, nearly 1,400 people had walked into police stations seeking help.
Brown says joining the initiative made sense for a progressive suburban community struggling with overdoses. Since the city of about 20,000 began participating in Hope Not Handcuffs, about 65 people have come in to request help with their addictions. “We’re probably overrepresented in overall numbers,” he says, “but we’ve been among the most vocal about this program. I believe in this. I have family members with substance abuse disorders.”
At the national level, the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, which was ahead of the curve when it was established in 2015, works similarly to Hope Not Handcuffs. It redirects people to recovery programs who might otherwise be arrested. The initiative has worked with more than 140 police departments. According to its annual report, in the program’s first year, communities saw a decrease in addiction-related crimes by as much as 25 percent.
Some police departments have faced public criticism from those who say they didn’t do much to help people get into recovery during the crack epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, which devastated communities largely made up of people of color. But Brown says this drug epidemic is different. “Crack just wasn’t killing people the way heroin has,” he says. “You take one dose of heroin and you can be dead if it’s laced with fentanyl. It’s scary. It’s caused us all to look at things differently.”