This week, we ask our resident social worker and addiction expert, Joe Schrank, about the current policing of drugs in the country. Can cops do better at their job? Do cops have the opportunity to be better towards those who are suffering? Maybe the system is built just to abuse the weak.
Are addicts criminals? Do cops distinguish?
One could argue, they aren’t doing anything wrong. Drugs are illegal so the problem is criminalizing drug use. It makes drug users low hanging fruit for cops looking to have an arrest record worth of merit. What’s more docile than stoners in the park? There were 1,632,941 drug related arrests in 2017 (drugpolicy.org). That’s a huge number in terms of time, effort and money and what does that mean in real terms? Do rapists escape justice? Murder? What’s the cost of a set up for cheap easy arrests and what is the culture that breeds in police departments?
Police departments could do many things better. The first thing they could do would be to learn about drug use, addiction, and mental health and become collaborative partners for massive change. Were I the chief of a police department with authority to do so, I would say “drug users are the lowest priority.” As long as police think of drug use as “crime” and want to enforce laws, where can this really go? We would need police departments to step-up and say they would like an overhaul of drug policy, freeing them to focus on actual crime.
Has protocol changed anywhere?
There are a few examples of police shifting from criminalization to public safety. Anyone who goes into the Gloucester, Mass. police department and asks for help with a drug problem is paired with a community advocate to negotiate options and services. The results have been very positive, not the least of which has been the trust built between the community and the police. There are very isolated examples of these kinds of shifts. The biggest example is Portugal.
In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drug use. Individuals who get caught using publicly are issued a summons to meet with a social worker where they are given treatment options. They are often banned from places like playgrounds and repeat offenders are fined €25-150. There are no arrests, court appearances, or lawyers, and there is minimal interaction with police.
So what’s the result? A 60% increase in people going to treatment, a reduction in young people misusing, a dramatic reduction in overdose deaths, a reduction in HIV and HEP C infections. Portugal hasn’t really solved the problem, but drug use isn’t a solvable problem, however the results so far have been better than anything we have here. I once asked the former drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, if the Portugal model could be adopted in the US and he said “Portugal is bullshit!.” His response is pretty typical from that level of authority because there’s a stubborn belief that a public health approach is wrong, regardless of results. I still don’t understand why.
Is the system abusive?
The abuses of policy among police in the US is staggering. The most recent one that comes to mind is the sheriff of Butler county Ohio, Richard Jones, who set a policy that deputies won’t carry NARCAN. His rationale seemed to be that the individuals overdosing would just do it again. Ironically, many of the cops in Butler County look like they could have an obesity-induced heart attack at any time–so I guess his deputies shouldn’t administer CPR if that happens because it’ll just happen again if they don’t lose 20 pounds. That analogy is a little wobbly, but I just believe his logic against NARCAN feels judgmental and punitive.
What’s been your experience with cops? Are you biased?
I am totally biased. I was raised by a cop. There were always cops around. They were armed, racist, and in many ways, lived by their own rules. The alcohol abuse among my father and his friends was immense. In that era, hippies were also a subset of “them” and even then it never made sense to me that cops felt they were better than other people while drunk and potentially violent. It is undeniable that my experience is just my own and painting all cops based on my sampling isn’t right, but it’s also a pretty good sample of the culture and I have seen it up close. I can unequivocally say that it was drunk, racist, potentially dangerous and vilified drug use, so it’s a bad set up for building community relations, especially during an opioid crisis.
In my head, cops would have to do one shift a week in some community-based organization. Not as volunteers, but as paid time to invest in the community. Coaching youth sports, working with clergy in some capacity, it’s more difficult to “Other-ize” people when you know them and you know their story. I’m guessing program and policy like that would reduce tensions in the community and that only helps reduce drug-related crime and problems. As racist as my father could be he would also say “Compton has a lot of fine folks” and he never made racist comments about anyone he knew personally. I think it’s important police do everything they can to break the cycle of “us vs. them.”
Isn’t it true that if cops get close to heroin junkies they will catch fentanyl poisoning and die?
The short answer about the perils of cops touching people in crisis is fear mongering at its worst. Of course precautions have to be taken to ensure safety for everyone, but the story that t”ouching an addict is certain death” is rank prejudice and stupidity.
But don’t cops statistically speaking have high rates of alcohol and drug misuse problems?
There have been numerous studies about cops and alcohol, but they are notoriously a difficult population to study. Their culture doesn’t speak to openly about mental health issues or especially alcohol issue, so the results could be skewed. There is a 2010 study that found almost 20% reported “adverse consequences from drinking” and 10% met criteria for chronic, lifetime alcoholism. This assumes the insight and honesty to report the link between drinking and consequence.
Many cops transition to law enforcement from military service which is another culture of alcohol abuse acceptance and fuels a lot of suicides. Some people find this shocking.. Really? Severe stress, trauma, alcohol and guns hardly adds up to a yoga enthusiast. As with the vast majority of systems and cultures in the United States, there is little if any in the way of proactive mental health screenings. It would be a rare police department that would have annual mental health check ups among officers, a rare police department that did family home visits and wellness screening among families. Ask a cop how they are and one would likely get “I’m fine.” Ask their children and the answer is very likely dramatically different. There are many things that could help this situation. Here are my suggestions
— Requirement for an undergrad degree in any discipline. This would help to weed out the “gimme a gun and a pay check” crowd.
— Case management for all officers with required monthly check-in
— Civilian review board of case notes and files annually and on demand.
— Allowing for use of medicinal cannabis when off duty in effort to curb use of alcohol.
— Paid shifts for community outreach and participation.
— Advocacy among officers to reform drug laws allowing for more focus on actual crime.
— Development of mental health treatment specific to the needs and issues of police. There are programs out there making this claim, but as always, it generally means “Cops only AA” meetings.
Joe Schrank is Executive Editor of The Small Bow. If you’ve got a suggestion for “I’ll Ask Joe” please email us here.