In a time when public attention on the police often has been critical, the men and women in blue have been accused of doing too much, of being too militarized, too racist and too violent.
If there’s anything that could change the perception, it just might be the opioid epidemic raging across the United States.
Lorain County, Ohio, had 12 drug-related deaths in 2006. By 2016, the number had risen to a staggering 132. In many communities, deaths from drug overdose have become a daily occurrence.
In some cities, the crisis already has changed the face of policing. Unlike the crack epidemic of the 1980s or methamphetamine in the early 2000s, there is no one dominant demographic on which police must focus attention, such as street gangs or rural America. People are using in their private homes.
Grandparents, moms, dads, the poor and the rich all use. Often, there are no obvious signs of addiction until it’s too late.
Indeed, the burden the opioid epidemic has put on police departments is unprecedented. Local forces are having to divert time and money to combat the consequences that accompany addiction, including violence, petty crimes and child neglect.
In recent days, the increased burden from overdoses has prompted some police departments to take drastic action. Some have issued notices to the communities they serve that they will not carry naloxone, be available to respond to an overdose or that they will adopt a three-strikes policy with regard to repeated overdoses.
Those who advocate these measures believe they will help officers do their jobs more efficiently.
Unfortunately, addiction is not a disease that easily allows people to take a rational approach to their actions. The threats of death and disease through addiction are nothing new to any of us.
It is immoral for society as a whole to withhold proven ways to combat these threats. When administered by people who aren’t medically trained, naloxone was able to reverse 26,000 opioid overdoses between 1996 and 2014.
Of course, treatment is the gold standard to address drug addiction, and when successful, it is the best approach. However, there are many other ways to address the needs of people who use drugs that will ensure their safety and provide resources that enable them to seek treatment in the long term.
Harm reduction programs — such as syringe-access programs or naloxone distribution — have been proven to work to protect people who use drugs from the deadly consequences of drug use.
The police mission has changed, just as it will always change. Yesterday, it was walking a beat with a revolver and club to make sure kids went to school.
Tomorrow, in addition to patrolling for bad guys, police also will respond to sick people. The people who overdose are citizens of the community, deserving of protection and service from the police. Forsaking them will not reduce drug use. It will simply cost more lives.