Police Taking Bigger Role in Fighting Opioids

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Opioids are claiming more deaths and, in some cities, wrecking more lives than traffic fatalities and murders combined. Police leaders are weary of the 911 calls and bodies with needles in their arms. They are assigning themselves a big role in reversing the problems, the New York Times reports. They are working with public health officials, and carrying more antidotes for heroin and its synthetic cousin fentanyl. Few see policing alone as the answer to such a complex social problem. The law enforcement approach to the crack-cocaine scourge of the 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 criminologist Samuel Walker of 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.”

Policing leaders say they have learned from the past. They also know how violent crime can flow from illegal drugs. A big fear among police chiefs is that increased demand for low-cost, high-potency opioids will lead to more shootings, and murders, as prices drop and drug traffickers organize. “In almost all of our major seizures and arrests, we’re encountering weapons,” says Drug Enforcement Administration chief Chuck Rosenberg. Despite the daily toll, no single loss has galvanized collective concern; some fear that a kind of compassion fatigue is setting in. “Where is the Len Bias moment?” asked Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, referring to the college basketball star’s cocaine-overdose death in 1986, considered a starting point for the “war on drugs.” He adds, “We’ve been at this for, now, four or five years, and the overdose numbers continue to go up. What’s going to be the defining moment to move this in a different direction?”

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