Can We Help Opioid Abusers Without Jailing Them?

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A strategy called "deflection," which partners police and health workers, is gaining traction in the national effort to combat opioid abuse. Photo by Find Rehab Centers via Flickr

Out of the tremendous heartbreak and suffering of our nation’s opioid epidemic, something new and hopeful is happening in communities across the country.

Police officers and drug treatment providers, previously unaccustomed and sometimes even reluctant to partner with one another, now can be found working side by side to reverse overdoses and connect people to drug treatment.

And while these emerging public safety-public health partnerships are not limited to combatting opioids—they also can address drug use in general, housing, mental health, and social services—it is the overwhelming number of people overdosing and dying from opioids that has accelerated the growth of these collaborations, and catalyzed their value in both saving lives and fighting crime.

The new approach is called ‘deflection.”

In deflection, law enforcement plays the critical role of connecting people to community-based treatment partners. This interaction may occur right on the street at the point of encounter, in the police or fire station, at the person’s home, or wherever the initial encounter occurs, all without fear of arrest.

On the receiving end of this “warm hand-off” are treatment providers and/or peer recovery partners who follow through to ensure the individual’s access to services. The operational specifics of each deflection program depend on the design of the local initiative, but the core idea is consistent: Instead of being a doorway into the justice system, law enforcement instead deflects people with substance use disorders to treatment.

Taken together, these new relationships signify the growing importance of “deflection,” which operates squarely at the intersection of law enforcement and treatment.

Sometimes referred to by other terms such as pre-arrest diversion, deflection is growing rapidly from its infancy. A few such programs came about in the 1990s and then faded, but the opioid epidemic has prompted new urgency for these efforts, birthing, or rebirthing, a wide variety of deflection efforts.

The most visible entry to this new stage was Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program in 2011. Others soon followed, from the 2014 Civil Citation Network in Alachua and Leon County (FL) and the 2014 Drug Abuse Resistance Team (DART) in Lucas County, Ohio; to the 2015 “Angel” and “Arlington Outreach” programs in Massachusetts and the 2015 Quick Response Teams (QRT) developing in communities in Ohio and elsewhere around the country.

Combined with its longer-serving counterparts on the mental health side—such as Crisis Intervention Teams, co-responders, and triage centers—deflection is changing the narrative about fighting crime from “We can’t arrest our way out of this” to “We have better options than arrest.”

Deflection as a term is differentiated from its cousin in the justice system: diversion. In deflection, it is the presence of a behavioral health issue that is driving the contact with police that in turn triggers the deflection (movement) away from the justice system and to community-based behavioral health.

In the vast majority of these cases there are no criminal charges present, responding to the reality that 81 percent of police encounters are, in the final analysis, social service calls. (There are a smaller number of deflection efforts that allow for criminal charges to be placed in abeyance by the police or a citation with mandatory treatment is issued but still in these cases, no traditional justice involvement is required.)

To be sure, some ongoing contact between law enforcement and treatment is helpful beyond that deflection handoff. In some cases, ongoing communication between partners can serve to de-conflict ongoing encounters, share status updates, and support the person who’s been deflected to treatment.

Still, the intent is not meant to add to the already unrealistic expectations placed upon law enforcement to solve chronic social problems, but instead to lighten the burden from where it does not belong – law enforcement – and instead place it with community treatment, housing, healthcare, and social services.

Deflection does increase the demand for treatment capacity and, as such, strategies and action are needed to assure quick and sufficient treatment availability wherever deflection initiatives exist.

In looking at the variety of existing deflection programs, five “pathways” broadly summarize different ways that law enforcement is connecting people to treatment:

  • Self-referral
  • Active Outreach
  • Naloxone Plus
  • Officer Prevention
  • Officer Intervention

Each of these pathways describes the linkage point between police and treatment. While jurisdictions will usually start by facilitating a single pathway, in time as they get experience in deflection and see first-hand the power of their collaborative work, they will begin to add in additional pathways.

Currently, out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States, it is estimated that slightly over 600 departments are doing some type of deflection.

In the face of a national opioid epidemic, the growth of the field has occurred almost entirely in the last three years. As such, programs continue to be developed and implemented across the county—responding not just to opioids, but to any drug crises that communities face—collectively they can actually reduce the flow of people into the criminal justice system, while also offering necessary referrals to community-based treatment, housing, and services.

Annually, our nation’s 800,000 law enforcement officers encounter 68 million people, some 12 million of whom will end up churning through our jails. Police also encounter millions of people each year for whom there are no criminal charges present, but who have health, housing, and social service needs.

Jac Charlier

Jac A. Charlier

And, given that the majority of people who currently enter the justice system have a substance use disorder, a mental health condition, or both, deflection provides the opportunity to redirect people to treatment before they reach the justice system, emergency rooms, or homeless shelters.

In a country where over 72,000 people died from overdose in 2017 alone, the expansion of these deflection efforts by law enforcement, and the parallel expansion of treatment capacity, cannot happen soon enough.

Jac A. Charlier is executive director of the TASC Center for Health and Justice, and co-founder of the Police, Treatment, and Community Collaborative (PTACC). He welcomes readers’comments. NOTE: Jac is among the speakers scheduled for this year’s John Jay/HF Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America. Please watch our site for upcoming information on how to register.

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