New York Times, June 12, 2017
Al Baker

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BURLINGTON, Vt. — In this college town on the banks of Lake Champlain, Chief Brandon del Pozo has hired a plain-spoken social worker to oversee opioids policy and has begun mapping heroin deaths the way his former commanders in the New York Police Department track crime.

In New York City, detectives are investigating overdoses with the rigor of homicides even if murder charges are a long shot. They are plying the mobile phones of the dead for clues about suppliers and using telltale marks on heroin packages and pills to trace them back to dealers. And like their colleagues in Philadelphia and Ohio, they are racing to issue warnings about deadly strains of drugs when bodies fall, the way epidemiologists take on Zika.

The police in Arlington, Mass., intervene with vulnerable users. Officials in Everett, Wash., have sued a pharmaceutical firm that they say created a black market for addicts. Seattle’s officers give low-level drug and prostitution suspects a choice: treatment instead of arrest and jail.

Opioids are cutting through the country, claiming increasing deaths and, in some cities, wrecking more lives than traffic fatalities and murders combined. Police leaders are weary of the scenes: 911 calls; bodies with needles in their arms; drugs called “fire” strewn about. They are assigning themselves a big role in reversing the problems. They are working with public health officials, and carrying more antidote for heroin and its synthetic cousin fentanyl.

Few see policing, by itself, as the answer to such a complex social problem, certainly not through enforcement alone. The law enforcement approach to the crack-cocaine scourge of the late 1980s filled jails and prisons, expanded government and did little to address the social issues driving that addiction crisis.

“The police can play a critical role in a very broadly based social and medical response,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “So if people think we are going to arrest our way out of the opioid crisis, they’re wrong.” [...]

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