In four decades of dealing with the effects of addiction, Chuck Wexler has seen a lot of changes.
Wexler is executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington-based group that works to develop best practices for America’s police forces. A native of Boston, Wexler held a number of key positions in the Boston Police Department. During the first Bush administration, he served as special assistant to the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He has a Ph. D. in urban studies and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Back in the ’70s and ’80s, heroin was expensive and purity was low,” he told TheInfluence. “Today, its purity is high and the price is low. That’s a bad combination.”
Perhaps the most significant, relatively recent change is a shift in attitudes among law enforcement agencies nationwide in favor of getting drug users into treatment, rather than just sending them to jail.
“Law enforcement has recognized that simply arresting those people only for them to come out of jail and continue to use is not going to work; we have to get them into treatment, while still going after the drug dealers,” Wexler says. “Law enforcement can be the bridge from which drug users can go from a difficult life to beginning a new life.
“People usually don’t go into treatment voluntarily; there’s usually some significant event that gets them into treatment. We can be that event. There’s a recognition that we need to come at this from both a law enforcement and a medical perspective. Working together is the way forward.”
Earlier this year, Wexler brought local law enforcement leaders from around the U.S. together to talk about strategies to take on the crisis that Camden, N.J. Police Chief J. Scott Thomson told them “we are still losing.” The group came up with the following recommendations:
1. Naloxone: Equip officers with naloxone. That single strategy has already saved 3,500 lives in the 276 police departments that responded to PERF’s survey. Police chiefs and sheriffs also can use their positions of leadership in the community to call for widespread distribution of naloxone (and training of personnel to administer it) at drug treatment facilities, homeless shelters, and other locations where overdoses have occurred in each community.
2. Data collection: It is important to promptly track the “who, how, when, and where” of fatal and nonfatal drug overdoses.
3. Early warning systems: Use the data to develop systems for detecting the onset of an opioids crisis in your community, or for detecting overdose spikes caused by heroin that has been “boosted” with fentanyl or carfentanil.
4. Use Compstat (Compare Statistics) principles as a methodology for addressing the opioid crisis. For example, New York City’s RxStat system is based on: the development and use of timely, accurate data; developing strategies based on those data; and rapid deployment of public health and public safety resources to high-priority areas.
5. Get users into treatment: take a leadership role in promoting drug treatment. Many police departments are taking proactive roles in getting addicted persons into treatment.
6. Drug treatment in jails: Sheriffs have a key role to play in providing detox and other treatment programs to jail inmates.
7. Strategic enforcement and prosecution: Target opioid enforcement efforts strategically. One approach is to target prosecutions toward the goal of reducing overdose deaths, as opposed to traditional measures such as quantity of drugs seized.
8. Focus on prevention by educating the public about risks: Take a leadership role in educating the public about the addiction risks of prescription opioid drugs.
9. Work with partners: Establish strong partnerships with public health agencies, social service providers, and treatment providers.
10. Encourage safety for officers: Remember to protect officers’ well-being and safety.