By Katie Zezima
The nation’s opioid epidemic is changing the way law enforcement does its job, with police officers acting as drug counselors and medical workers and shifting from law-and-order tactics to approaches more akin to social work.
Departments accustomed to arresting drug abusers are spearheading programs to get them into treatment, convinced that their old strategies weren’t working. They’re administering medication that reverses overdoses, allowing users to turn in drugs in exchange for treatment, and partnering with hospitals to intervene before abuse turns fatal.
“A lot of the officers are resistant to what we call social work. They want to go out and fight crime, put people in jail,” said Capt. Ron Meyers of the police department in Chillicothe, Ohio, a 21-year veteran who is convinced that punitive tactics no longer work against drugs. “We need to make sure the officers understand this is what is going to stop the epidemic.”
Officers are finding children who were barricaded in rooms while their parents got high, and they are responding to the same homes for the same problems. Feelings of exasperation course through some departments in which officers are interacting with the same drug users over and over again, sometimes saving their lives repeatedly with naloxone, a drug that reverses an opiate overdose.
“You’re tired of dealing with this person because it saps your resources and it’s frustrating, and sometimes that manifests itself in a poor attitude or police officer becoming cynical or sarcastic,” said Officer Jamie Williamson of the police department in Ithaca, N.Y., where he said heroin is on every corner of the city. “But you want to get them the help so you don’t have to deal with them and so that person gets to a better place.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 33,000 people died from opiate overdoses in 2015, a record. Opioids now kill more people than car accidents, and in 2015 the number of heroin deaths nationwide surpassed the number of deaths from gun homicides. The expansion of the problem has forced officers to fundamentally rethink their work.