Should the police be responding to opioid overdoses? If you ask some public health experts, drug users, and even the police themselves, the answer might be no.
Public health experts who are concerned about police involvement point broadly to the idea that this approach is not harm-reduction based. More specifically, their concerns revolve around the police criminalizing drug users and others on scene, the impact of drug induced homicide laws, and exacerbating overdose likelihood in the future.
People who use drugs often have similar concerns, and police involvement in overdose calls for service may cause citizens to be reluctant in calling 911 when an overdose situation arises due to the fear of arrest. Lastly, the police are concerned with the training and cost, fear of exposure to opioids, liability (civil or criminal), inappropriately administering naloxone, and aggression from the victim post-naloxone administration.
Recently published researched in the American Journal of Public Health casts doubt on the prevalence of some of these concerns regarding police responding to overdoses, at least in Tempe, Az.
Using an innovative method of assessing incident characteristics, the authors review body-worn camera footage of Tempe police officers responding to overdoses where a local fire department (FD) or a Tempe police officer administered naloxone. The data included 168 overdose incidents where an officer was on scene from February 3, 2020, to May 7, 2021.
Police concerns were largely not supported in Tempe. No officer improperly administered naloxone; no officer was accidently exposed to an opioid; no officer was disciplined or sued; one officer did hesitate to administer naloxone (FD was on scene and the officer let them provide aid); and the overdose victim was aggressive in just 3.6 percent of the incidents.
Similarly, public health concerns were infrequently observed. The overdose victim was arrested in six incidents (3.6 percent); ticketed or cited in five incidents (3 percent); and two incidents led to others at the scene being arrested (1.2 percent). All the arrests were for felony warrants. Also, officers exercised their discretion and chose not to arrest the overdose victim in eight incidents despite having a warrant.
While these findings are promising, it’s important to consider some contextual factors. In Arizona, the opioid crisis has been recognized at all levels of government and within many police departments. In 2015, Arizona State Legislature passed HB 2489, which allowed police to be trained and outfitted with naloxone.
The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board has also promoted naloxone in police departments through funding, training, and access to naloxone. Additionally, in 2018, Arizona legislature passed a Good Samaritan law that provides protection against arrest for the overdose victim and caller. However, this law does exclude felony or outstanding warrants.
Lastly, the Tempe Police Department has de-emphasized the need to arrest through training and has emphasized the role of being a conduit to social services.
State, local, and departmental buy-in is critical for a successful program of this nature. This is
achieved through both formal and informal policies or training. In Arizona, and specifically in
Tempe, the ingredients are there for a successful police-led naloxone program.