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Role-Reversal: Some Cops Have Started Saving Lives From Overdose, Not Just Arresting Drug Users

Some officers aren't looking to make drug arrests; they want to save overdose victims from death.

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On August 1, 2012, Officer Michael Alfieri of Suffolk County, New York, responded to a 911 call about an unconscious man in an apartment. Arriving at the scene, Alfieri noted the man’s bluish skin, labored breathing and track marks in his arms, all indicative of a heroin overdose. Kneeling beside the victim, Officer Alfieri administered two doses of Narcan, a drug that blocks the effects of opiates to the brain, through an intranasal spray. Minutes later the man woke up, shocked and confused, but grateful to be alive.

Officer Alfieri was the first deputy in his department to administer Narcan under a new pilot program launched only two days prior, which trains and equips police officers to use Narcan when confronted with an opiate overdose. Narcan (generic name naloxone), a drug traditionally administered by EMTs, is making its way into the hands of police officers in some states as part of efforts to reverse the nationwide overdose epidemic. Drug overdose recently surpassed auto fatalities as the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and according to the CDC,current drug distribution through pharmacies is equal to 700 mg of morphine per person, enough for everyone in the U.S. to take a typical 5mg dose of Vicodin every four hours for three weeks.

Law enforcement and Narcan may seem odd bedfellows considering the agency’s traditional hard stance on drugs, but the alliance makes sense in light of the nature of opiate overdose. The most lethal of all drugs, opiates, such as heroin or most prescription painkillers, lull the user into a sleepy euphoria that can lead to respiratory failure. As police officers often respond to 911 calls faster than an ambulance, a growing number of counties are relying on law enforcement to reach victims before they stop breathing.

The first police Narcan program in the United States was launched in 2004 in the districts of Santa Fe and Española, New Mexico. New Mexico has consistently led the other 49 states in overdose deaths, with 27 in 100,000 fatalities, more than twice the national average. Between 2010-2012, several counties in Massachusetts and New York introduced similar initiatives to combat burgeoning overdose epidemics.

Most Narcan programs develop under the leadership of a high-ranking law enforcement officer in response to a spike in overdose fatalities. In rural Rensselaer county, New York, Sheriff Jack Mahar noticed a sharp increase in the use and abuse of prescription pills during his nine-year tenure, as well as delays for the county’s volunteer ambulance to arrive. Recognizing that lives could be saved if overdose victims were reached earlier, Sheriff Mahar and Dr. Michael Daly, medical director of the Rensselaer EMT program, petitioned the public health department to allow police officers to administer Narcan. In May 2012 they received the green light to launch a pilot program.

A similar process occurred in Quincy, Massachusetts. Between 2008 and 2009 the small town of Quincy lost 42 members to overdose. The victims ranged from habitual drugs users to young teens experimenting with pills and elderly folks who confused their prescription medications. Fed up with the losses, a group of concerned citizens approached the police. Lieutenant Detective Pat Glynn, along with the chief of police and the mayor, requested action from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and in 2011, a pilot program was implemented to train and equip deputies with nasal Narcan. As of August 2012, Quincy officers have reversed 103 overdoses and the death toll has plummeted to 16 since the program began.

Officer Donnelly, a seven-year patrol officer with the Quincy police, has personally reversed seven overdoses in the past year and a half. “It’s really amazing when you give [Narcan] to someone who has overdosed. One minute they’re clinically dead and a few minutes later they pop up, alive.”