Policing on the Front Lines of the Opioid Crisis

April 21, 2021 — A new publication from the COPS Office, Policing on the Front Lines of the Opioid Crisis, discusses the challenge of reconciling the conflicts that can arise when law enforcement officers are asked to play three roles: emergency response, public safety, and law enforcement.

In the report, available here as a PDF download, takes into consideration the evolving role of law enforcement in the effort to assuage the opioid crisis. From the 1980s to present, law enforcement's approach has shifted from arrests for illegal drug possession to "demand-reduction policies". In lieu of arresting individuals, for example, officers are administering life-saving naloxone in cases of overdose, or working to protect addicted individuals by connecting them with drug-treatment programs.

That evolving role, however, has also created conflicts. For example, the report identified the policy of "making arrests for opioid possession" as "inconsistent" with emergency response, "mixed" with public safety, and "consistent" with law enforcement. On the other hand, the policy of "making naloxone available to the public" was rated as "consistent" with emergency response, "mixed" with public safety, and "inconsistent" with law enforcement.

The report states, "These assignments should not be interpreted as indications that an individual opioid-related policy is 'good' or 'bad' for the police. Rather, these assignments should be interpreted as indications of the ways policies can impact the multiple roles the police serve in responding to the opioid crisis."

Within the report, five strategies are offered to help police departments lessen or reverse the conflicts encountered when dealing with opioids and opioid use.

"In the United States, the opioid crisis is not a single problem," says the report. "It is a health crisis, it is a criminal justice crisis, and it is a human services crisis."

You can download the full report here.

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