Why Police Should Support Harm Reduction for People Who Use Drugs, Part II of II

Part II of II Read Part I Here.

Mikayla Hellwich: If politics were not a concern, describe how you would, as Chief, train your officers to engage people with drug addictions. This includes a) people who’ve overdosed, b) people who are found with illegal drugs, and c) people who approach an officer because they need help.

Chief Spawn: I would make sure my officers were trained to use Narcan (editor’s note: Narcan is the brand name of Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug) which is currently carried by many police officers in New York State and in other parts of the U.S. In the early days after Narcan was deployed in the field, when there was a life-saving rescue, there was always a news headline. It’s now happening with such regularity that it no longer makes news. The upside is that police have been trained to respond effectively to an overdose, but it’s also disheartening because it shows how widespread the opioid epidemic is.

In New York, state laws have changed so that syringes provided through programs are legal. Drug residues found in those syringes are no longer illegal. Also in New York, we have a Good Samaritan law, so someone who calls 911 for an overdose won’t be prosecuted. Overdose victims are also not subject to prosecution.

Throughout my career I’ve been asked about where a person can get help for a person with addiction. Sometimes you can share stories with families to teach them what to look for. There are some diversion programs in parts of the country — like LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion — which allows the person to get services without the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system. The court system is dealing with so many crimes, but diversion is dealing with low-level offenses, and drug possession is their specialty. People can get services and assistance without being involved in the criminal justice system.

Did your officers carry Narcan/Naloxone?

Narcan was just coming into the police community around the time I was leaving in 2008. The state program hadn’t taken effect.

In 35 years, I never thought I’d be involved in advocating for something like this. Just having this experience — working with people and seeing all the crime surrounding the drug trade, and looking at the human side of it. It’s really been a great experience. To see these new programs coming online, and even learning about prescription heroin. There are a lot of interesting and innovative ideas out there to address addiction, and public acceptance of them is growing.

Safe disposal for syringes prevents accidental needle-stick injuries and reuse of needles by injecting drug users who may transmit infections to their peers.

What is the biggest community obstacle to implementing effective harm reduction policies and practices?

There’s a whole range of engagement, acceptance, and understanding. There are communities that understand and appreciate what needle exchanges do and understand they’re effective but don’t want them in their town. There are communities who do not want them at any cost. Sometimes law enforcement or the mayor are opposed. And sometimes the police ask for and support a syringe program. Either way, it really does take a lot of planning. Once these programs get started, people get a little more comfortable with them.

What is the biggest law enforcement obstacle to implementing effective harm reduction policies and practices?

Police can be an obstacle — law enforcement needs to be aware of evolving changes in law and regulations, which may allow the possession of syringes and paraphernalia. If syringe possession is legal in your jurisdiction, but the policing practice hasn’t changed, the arrest of persons for having legal syringes is counterproductive to the program. Police can also cause interference by patrolling excessively around syringe program facilities, mobile syringe vans, and disposal kiosks. People need to be comfortable in using these services in order for them to be effective. The way police respond will have a direct impact on public health.

Other obstacles in the success of a syringe services program can come from the community members, neighbors, and from elected officials.

Law enforcement needs to understand and appreciate the virtues of harm reduction. In a way, we’re already well-versed in this. Red light and speeding enforcement keep people safe from reckless drivers. DUI patrols, seatbelt enforcement — those are all harm reduction initiatives.

I like that you compared other aspects of police work to harm reduction — it’s probably easier for officers to relate to that.

I get a range of responses from other law enforcement. Some are disgusted by it, and others are excited and want to open a syringe exchange program in their jurisdiction. It has been an eye-opener to some — to explain that law enforcement certainly includes enforcing the law but it’s also about so many other aspects of public protection and providing services.

Is there a difference between how beat cops and brass feel about harm reduction?

I have noticed in some areas, especially in larger areas where harm reduction becomes more political because of the city administration. A chief might have a particular view — perhaps a progressive one — but if the elected officials are opposed, that sort of mutes the acceptance by the police. For the officers on the ground who are working with people every day… most often, those cops are looking for resources to help the people they are dealing with every minute of the day.

If I’m a beat cop in January in upstate New York in freezing conditions, and I’ve got someone who’s causing a public disturbance — do I leave them there, or do I bring them in on a disorderly conduct charge, and at least I know they’re warm and safe for the night? It’s a challenging paradox decision to make because jail isn’t the right service for them but it might be the most helpful thing I can do at the time.

For mental health, in the county where I used to work, we had Mobile Crisis Response. Police could call mental health professionals when there was a suicidal person or other emotional crisis. When budget cuts came, this was one of the first programs to be axed because it was relatively new, even though it was working! Beat cops are looking desperately for more services like this.

A great story from the city of Albany, and this isn’t necessarily talking about rank and file vs administrative — there was a hot batch of heroin that went out and almost killed two intravenous drug users. The police were able to go to the syringe exchange and warn people about the “red dot” heroin — they were able to use that network. If you’ve got this, it might kill you. There’s no above-ground network to communicate directly with a lot of these people.

It’s great that those services can be hubs to communicate with the drug-using population and ensure they have the right safety information.

Exactly. And I think it’s time we rethink abstinence-only model of education.

I mentioned earlier we didn’t have diversion, but in the ’90s, we were one of the first to have a drug treatment court. The rule was that the defendant facing a felony drug crime — usually for trafficking — would enter into a contract admitting guilt and promising sobriety in exchange for a lesser charge. If they went to court and the person tested hot, the judge would have harsh questions, maybe they’d have to write an essay, maybe the judge would send them to jail for the weekend.

After a few months, when a handful of people had graduated through drug court, there would be a ceremony. Law enforcement executives from throughout the county would regularly attend. At the time it felt good, it felt right. Today, especially with the benefit of hindsight, abstinence may not be the best model. If a person is going to quit they have to want to. They were in drug court because they were arrested, they may not be ready but they’re being told to. I think drug courts are well-intentioned. Even so, we need a better understanding of addiction. Addiction is not a crime.

Would you agree they were a stepping stone to help us get closer to the best solutions?

There are certain people alive today who survived because of drug courts.

I will say in my county, even though it was an abstinence model, when someone would come back with a hot test, the judge understood and really tried to keep the person engaged. If the person was arrested 4 or 5 times in a row, then it was more difficult. With that said, I think it did provide an opportunity to some people. Now their families know and there’s a clear opportunity to change, but it’s not always the best option.

Chief Mark Spawn (Ret.) served the Fulton Police Department in New York for 24 years and spent 12 years as Chief. He is an expert in harm reduction, community-driven policing, sexual assault investigations, procedural justice, and transparency and accountability in law enforcement. He’s now a speaker for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership and lives in Costa Mesa, California.

Mikayla Hellwich is the Media Relations & Speakers Bureau Director for LEAP.

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