The Opioid Crisis — How Every Cop Can Help Right Now

Source: The Drug Policy Alliance

My name is Chris Magnus, and I’m the police chief of Tucson, Arizona. Recently, several of my officers were flagged down by a frantic couple who said someone in their vehicle was dying. The officers were led to an unresponsive 20 year-old man experiencing a drug overdose in the back seat. They worked to revive him, and he was ultimately transported to a nearby hospital where his condition improved. Meanwhile, the young man’s friends told the officers about other teens in similar shape at a nearby house party.

The officers rushed to the house and discovered an unconscious 17 year-old girl lying on the floor. She had overdosed, and all the signs pointed to opioids. Relying on their training, our officers administered naloxone (also called Narcan®), an over-the-counter opioid overdose reversal drug. This drug is as simple to use as it is effective, and can be administered nasally without any harmful side effects. Thankfully, due to the concerned couple, our officers’ actions, and the power of this life-saving drug, she gradually regained consciousness.

Further inside the home, officers discovered a 19 year-old man lying unconscious in a bathtub. Despite their efforts, which included Naloxone and the use of a defibrillator, he could not be revived. The officers saved the lives of several other teenagers at the home, but for this young man, it was too late.

No family is immune to the scourge of addiction. Opioid misuse, addiction, and overdoses are on the rise in cities and towns across the country with no sign of slowing down. As this epidemic progresses, so must our response.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin, fentanyl (a synthetic opioid), and a range of pain relievers such as oxycodone (OxyContin®) and hydrocodone (Vicodin®). Misuse of opioids can easily lead to dependence, overdose, and death — and people of all income levels, age, race, ethnicity, and gender are impacted. Access to these drugs is often as easy as opening a medicine cabinet, but increasingly, underground market pills and opioids in other forms are coming from abroad laced with fentanyl — which is much more potent.

For cops like us, saving lives is job #1. At the start of our careers, we swear to uphold the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics that begins with this oath: “As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind (and) to safeguard lives . . .” Providing officers and community members — who are often first responders for their loved ones — with naloxone should be a priority for any responsible police agency.

Yet many police chiefs and sheriffs resist issuing naloxone to their personnel. Their concerns are completely unfounded. Naloxone has been safely used by police officers without legal consequences for years. It is easy to use, secure, and maintain. Tucson officers have carried naloxone, despite our extreme summer heat, with little to no degradation of the drug or diminution of its effectiveness. Health departments and other community partners are typically willing to help law enforcement agencies set up and fund their naloxone programs. As early as 2010, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy declared that naloxone “should be in the patrol cars of every law enforcement professional across the nation.”

Naloxone is one part of the answer but police leaders can and should do more to end the cycle of addiction and death by implementing deflection — also called “diversion” — programs. In Tucson, police officers have the opportunity to exercise our discretion to divert certain individuals with small amounts of drugs into treatment rather than jail. Good deflection programs also require collaboration with community service providers.

Deflection is not for drug dealers, individuals with larger amounts of illegal drugs, or dangerous people. Individuals with substance use disorders have to be emotionally, psychologically, and physically ready to confront their addiction. Locking people up does not address the root causes of the problem, which may include poverty, homelessness, unemployment, untreated trauma, or physical health problems, and more often than not exacerbates the addiction. Officers are increasingly ready to utilize deflection programs because they are discovering it can be a game-changer, not just for drug users, but for the community. People who are diverted into treatment and support services are less likely to steal and sell sex to get money for drugs, which reduces local crime.

Forty years of policing have taught me that good police officers are pragmatists. If something works to save lives and reduce crime, we are willing to utilize it. Our communities expect us to be serious partners in reducing drug-related deaths, so now we need to intervene in ways that make a real difference.

I don’t want to lose any more 19 year-olds, or any other children, parents, colleagues, or friends to overdoses. There are no silver bullets to ending drug addiction, overdose, or opioid-related deaths, but equipping police officers with naloxone and giving us the tools and discretion to deflect those experiencing addiction into treatment will save lives and keep neighborhoods safer.

Chief Chris Magnus has spent the last 39 years in law enforcement and now leads the Tucson Police Department in Arizona. In January 2018, he became a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of police, judges, and other criminal justice professionals working to improve the justice system.

Originally published at on April 22, 2019.

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