A couple of years ago I attended a conference presentation by Corey Davis from Prevention Point Philadelphia. According to Corey, most syringe exchange programs in the U.S. don’t have established relations with their local police departments. I found this a dubious point as programs in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco visited their local precincts with such frequency they could claim a domestic partnership. However, Corey had been surveying programs across the country and found consistently that syringe exchange programs as a whole have not invested in building relationships with law enforcement.
Garnering the attention of the police and the public has rarely been a problem for syringe exchange programs and drug users. During the 1990’s, the District Manager of our local Community Board called the police on our exchange program. I had reached out to her for local business contacts so that I could pass on information about our activities, and the notoriously venal District Manager responded to the this straightforward request by going straight to the cops. This sort of attention and alarm was par for the course in those days and in this particular instance, it was a great favor. As a result of her action, I developed relationships with the local community affairs officers and started doing roll call trainings. Each police precinct rotates the cops on the street 3 times a day. When cops clock in, it’s possible to talk to the incoming shift while they’re gathered and before they head out to work. I don’t know if every roll call presenter has the same experience but on most days the level of hostility emanating from the beat cops was tangible. Roll-call sessions were exercises in talking to the (blue) wall, with nary a twitch, a smile, a nod or a movement from most of the officers gathered. Outside the roll calls was a different matter. Cops on the street would stop me and say they supported the work I was doing. Of the training sessions, the new recruits or cadets were the friendliest. A former funeral parlor worker turned cadet even suggested that catheters could be inserted into people’s veins so that needle exchange would become superfluous.
This past week the Yale Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS held a symposium called "Aligning Criminal Justice and HIV Prevention: From Conflict to Synergy." Organized by Leo Beletsky, the conference brought together researchers, government, advocates and law enforcement in order to identify issues of common concern and interest, and strategize areas for potential collaboration, all with a particular emphasis on research.
From the get go it was clear that the trajectory of the meeting was not HIV prevention. It was to be a conference concentrated on drugs, and on the ways that drug users, service providers and law enforcement are inextricably entangled in a problematic war on drugs. Representatives from law enforcement in attendance made clear that their interest lies in the conduct of police work and not paper work. Community policing has been eliminated due to economic constraints, accordingly law enforcement is conducted in a drive by fashion and limited resources are not well spent on drug users guaranteed to return to their respective corners within hours of arrest/release.
Shafiq Abdussabur, a police officer from Connecticut who specializes in gun violence, admitted that when confronted with the obvious futility of relying on law enforcement as a primary means of solving drug use and its related problems, police assume a default position consistent of arrest, arrest, and arrest. Ultimately they follow the law even if they do it with a shake of the head. It was clear that as far as drug use, policing, and public health are concerned the fulfillment of the law is the benchmark of success, and if we want to see change for drug users, it is the laws that need changing.
Scott Thompson, from the Vancouver Police Department, discussed the dynamics of living and working in a city that supports a harm reduction approach to drug use. Considerable effort has gone into ensuring that the supervised injection site, Insite, functions with the full cooperation of the police. In preparing for Insite’s opening and operation, all eventualities were covered including how to deal with a hostage crisis and policy and procedures for police pursuits that happen onto Insitegrounds. Local police have instructions to direct drug injectors to the facility and on occasion they escort users directly to Insite as well as to the local syringe exchange.
In both cases, law enforcement has orders to follow, and as a hierarchical entity they (mostly) uphold the laws that govern their respective jurisdictions. The difference in the outcomes for drug users in each of these police cultures has to do with the local and national drug policy climate. However, social service providers and law enforcement can make a difference in the lives of drug users if they develop a mutual understanding of the problems facing communities and strive to bridge the difference in perspectives and align forces to create viable and alternative solutions to addressing drug related harm.
From the service provider and government sector, Basha Silverman from Brandywine Counseling, a drug treatment/ needle exchange program in Wilmington, Delaware and Maxine Phillips and Mary-Ellen Cala from the New York State Department of Health AIDS Instituteexplained the secrets of their success in working with law enforcement. Strategically speaking the tactics are simple; relentless relationship building comprised of community and civic association meetings, meetings with police chiefs/captains and their support staff, joining sub-committees and inviting police onto advisory boards, arranging visits to treatment and exchange programs, working with community relations police, and training, training, and more education. Ideally, these efforts would foster the creation of feedback loops so that it is clear what works, what does not work, and would aid in the establishment of a strategy for furthering more effective community partnering. At all times it is critical to acknowledge law enforcement’s own perspective on community drug issues and to emphasize the benefits that they can derive in supporting syringe exchange, such as minimizing risk from a needle stick. The relationship between providers and police can, and should, be a bi-directional initiative.
A successful domestic drug strategy is the alignment and integration of preventing drug use, treating problematic drug use, working with people who are using drugs to minimize damage, and public safety/law enforcement. We struggle with balancing this approach in the U.S. People that work on the ground delivering harm reduction services don’t have adequate political leverage and financial resources. Our police departments, despite their economic problems, are immeasurably better off than small non-profits but it is unrealistic to expect the police to reach out to us. At some point we will have the Vancouver-type of situation where a progressive public policy on drugs means that law enforcement is fully (and not unhappily) brought to the table in a collaborative manner. Until that time, those non-profits working with drug users will have to bust their butts and double the effort to work with local police. It’s a worthwhile effort that both protects the organization and the people being served.
P.S. The Institute @ HRChas scheduled a training on working with law enforcement for June 10th. Details will appear on the website at a later date.
My semi-literate thoughts have been edited, burnished and focused by Erica Poellot, to whom I’m very grateful.