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Stepping Up, Then Stepping Back: The Dynamic Role of Law Enforcement in Tackling the Opioid Crisis

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brenda Bond
June 4, 2018

Most communities are struggling to get a handle on the recent opioid crisis. In some states, this crisis results in thousands of deaths each year. This is not a crisis of cities, nor it is a crisis within a specific economic or ethnic population. The opioid crisis is present in almost every community and has challenged public safety and public health professionals in new ways. There is no question that today’s opioid crisis is a “wicked problem.”

In previous decades, law enforcement would work with other law enforcement agencies to implement as much “law enforcement” as possible. These law enforcement tactics of the 1980s and 1990s will not work in addressing today’s opioid crisis (they didn’t really work then either). Militaristic, heavy-handed strategies which emphasize “lock ‘em up” approaches are outdated and ineffective. As many suggest, the war on drugs turned out to be a flawed policy. Fortunately, sentiments by modern law enforcement leaders reflect this and open the conversation to non-traditional, comprehensive and holistic ways of getting at this problem. Fast forward several decades and we find the crisis to be as difficult as previous crises, but professionals in law enforcement are approaching crisis response and prevention in very different ways.

Some of the shifts in thinking have grown out of complete frustration as officers on the street are seeing the same individuals struggling with drug addiction. The criminal justice system has not been equipped to serve these individuals in sustainable ways, due in part to the limited treatment options. Drug Courts have been launched and there are indications that they are having a positive impact on addiction and crime. However, like treatment, there is a great need for more, and evidence-based practices are still underfunded and out of reach for many families and communities.

Despite these financial challenges, there are innovative approaches underway across many communities in their attempts to respond to the opioid crisis and prevent further abuse. Integration of research into practice is more of a mainstay in state and federal grants, and public service institutions are more aware of the need to adopt evidence-based practices.

Take for example one approach, adopted by the city of Lowell, Massachusetts. Funded by the US Bureau of Justice Assistance Strategies for Policing Innovation, the program is designed as a collaborative community approach to reducing overdose deaths. The program was launched by the police department and fire departments, sparked by the interests of an officer and firefighter. The approach centers on an outreach strategy, reaching addicted individuals out in the community. An outreach team, consisting of a police officer, firefighter and treatment provider, conduct outreach visits with individuals who have experienced an overdose, quickly working to get the individual into treatment. Their outreach takes them to homes, shelters and homeless encampments.

The strategy was originally situated in the police department, with other agencies, including the City’s Health Department, serving as partners. Under the leadership of the police department, federal grants funds were secured, and services strengthened. As the program evolved, mental health, ambulatory, and hospital services were brought into the fold. A Memorandum of Understanding was created to describe and delineate roles and responsibilities, and a formal evaluation was launched. As more individuals were being served, and as the program has evolved, the management of the program has been moved to the City Health Department. This allows the police to move away from management, to support. However, the police remain critical to the outreach efforts. In addition, each organizational representative is charged with increasing awareness of the program within their own agencies. This, along with the MOU, facilitate an institutionalized and sustainable approach, so that this is not a “program” but rather a way of addressing their wicked community problem.

There are several key take-aways from this example, as it is applied to the current opioid crisis. First, as with many public safety challenges, the police often end up serving as the go-to agency in responding to emerging or evolving crises. This is natural as they are trained and equipped as first responders. They are first on the scene and must be prepared in emergency response, but then as conduits for service. However, the police can serve as facilitators, leading communities in the right direction. In this example, the police helped launch the approach, secure funding, but then appropriately shifted their role given the nature of the challenge. The shift does not take away their important engagement in the issue, but reinforces a comprehensive, collaborative approach. In turn, individuals and agencies build their capacity to collective address the current crisis — opioid addiction and related deaths. Importantly, this dynamic engagement also facilitates and supports future collaboration around unknown, but assured challenges ahead.


Author: Brenda J. Bond is Associate Professor and Chair of the Institute for Public Service at Suffolk University. Her interests are in collaborative approaches to public safety, and organizational change in public safety institutions. She can be reached at [email protected]

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