It’s not every day that law enforcement and active drug users agree on something, or that Democratic and Republican politicians find common ground. But on Tuesday, June 12th, the Summit on Law Enforcement Safety and Drug Policy forged unlikely collaborations on issues of law enforcement safety in North Carolina. During the event, law enforcement, civil servants, academics, public health workers and concerned community members discussed various topics affecting law enforcement, including the importance of preventing needle-stick injuries to officers and the community, the need to include law enforcement to address the epidemic of prescription drug overdose, and reducing recidivism among prison populations.
Preventing Needle-Sticks to Law Enforcement
The Summit was held at the legislative auditorium in downtown Raleigh. During the first panel of the morning, former officer Jen Earls spoke articulately about her first needle-stick as a rookie cop in Chicago. “Getting stuck by a needle was one of the scariest moments of my career,” said Earls. “I pulled over a woman driving a posh Lexus in a rough neighborhood. She told me her driver’s license was in her purse and when I put my hand in, I got stuck on a needle. I didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because no rookie wants that kind of attention. So I put a band-aid on it and went on with work.”
Conference participants, including Republican Representative Glen Bradley, Democratic Representative Dianne Parfitt, Jon Sanders of the Jon Locke Foundation (a conservative think-tank), and several members of law enforcement, articulated the need for syringe decriminalization laws in North Carolina. Syringe decriminalization would allow residents, whether the state’s 680,000 diabetics or 25,000 urban injection drug users, to carry clean syringes without fear of arrest. Current N.C. laws, which categorize syringe possession as a Class A misdemeanor, discourage people from declaring syringes to an officer during a search and result in 1 in 3 officers receiving a needle-stick during their careers, with 28% receiving multiple sticks. Syringe decriminalization has been shown to reduce the incidence of needle-sticks to officers by 66%, as well as to reduce HIV and hepatitis transmission in communities where it has been enacted.
“Representative Bradley and I are usually on opposite ends of the political spectrum,” said Representative Parfitt during the Summit, “But we are in 100% agreement on this issue [of syringe decriminalization]. I think the will is there and we will look at a way to make this happen.”
“I believe a combination of harm reduction programs and syringe decriminalization will make a vast difference in the lives of law enforcement officers,” explained former officer Earls. “I think officers need to know how to safely handle paraphernalia and needles. They need to know when to wear gloves and when to take extra precautions.”
“There are many costs associated with needle-sticks, such as the lifetime costs of HIV and hepatitis infections that are born by taxpayers for people without insurance,” said Jon Sanders of the John Locke Foundation. “Even diabetics who live in a bad neighborhood are afraid to carry their own needles and they put their own health and the health of law enforcement at risk. Syringe decriminalization is a low cost measure that will lower health costs and raise public health, and for those reasons I support it.”
Following the needle-stick panel, Republican Representatives Leo Daughtry and John Faircloth, as well as Democratic Senator Ed Jones, led a discussion on the need to reduce recidivism rates in North Carolina, which have climbed to nearly 40% for adults in recent years. The legislators championed the Justice Reinvestment Act, passed by the NC General Assembly in spring 2012, which aims to reduce recidivism by allowing parole officers to intervene more quickly to discipline parole violators instead of waiting months while the case lags in the courts and the negative activity continues. “The Justice Reinvestment Act is about taking money that goes into prisons and putting it into rehabilitating people,” explained Representative Daughtry.
“Communities will be safer, law enforcement will be safer, if there are more efforts directed towards opportunities to find housing and jobs [for ex-offenders],” said retired officer Ronald Martin.
“When I started [in law enforcement] 35 years ago I had the idea that we should lock up everybody and throw away the key,” said Senator Jones. “I know now that we can’t do business that way…we have to think about people as being a part of society and not remove them from society…I would ask you to make every effort to see that these [ex-offenders] have a decent starting life when they get out.”
The Representatives spoke alongside Dennis Gaddy, Executive Director of the Community Success Initiative, Bill Rowe, General Counsel and Director of Advocacy at the NC Justice Center, and Jon Sanders of the John Locke Foundation.
Utilizing Law Enforcement to Decrease Overdose Deaths
The final Summit panel addressed law enforcement’s roll in reducing the epidemic of drug overdose deaths. Overdose death from prescription painkillers has recently passed motor vehicle fatalities as the number one cause of accidental death in the United States. North Carolina suffered over 1000 overdose deaths last year alone, mostly from opiate painkillers. Research shows that most people overdose in the presence of another person. However, current laws discourage witnesses to an overdose from calling 911 for fear of drug possession charges. Consequently, many witnesses wait too long to call emergency services, or don’t call at all, often resulting in the death of the person who has overdosed.
Some police departments around the country have begun requiring their officers to carry Narcan, a drug that reverses fatal overdoses. As police are often first to arrive at emergency scenes, especially in rural areas where ambulance arrivals are delayed, law enforcement officers have a unique opportunity to save lives with Narcan.
Lieutenant Detective Pat Glynn, champion of a Narcan program at the Quincy police department in Massachusetts, joined the Summit to discuss the success of the Quincy program.
“A couple years ago we had 47 overdose deaths in Quincy over an 18 month period,” said Lt Det. Glynn. “After we started the Narcan program, from October 2010 to June 2012 overdose deaths dropped to 16, and our officers conducted 90 successful overdose reversals with Narcan…We had a family member feel so comfortable [with police using Narcan] that they pulled up to the parking lot of the police station, knocked on the door and the police were able to come out with Narcan and save the individual’s life. It’s refreshing to see people coming to us and looking at [law enforcement] in a different light.”
In addition to Narcan programs, legislators participating in the Summit discussed 911 Good Samaritan laws, which would grant amnesty to witnesses to an overdose who call emergency services to save a person’s life.
Representative Parfitt offered a personal perspective on overdose. “At one point my 85 year old aunt was admitted to Duke with a drug overdose from Valium…we have to overcome the idea that [drug overdoses happen to] other people, not us…a lot of people are affected because someone inappropriately uses drugs…there are some simple solutions and one thing we can do here is look at the 911 Good Samaritan bill.”
“There is a larger problem with prescription drugs in America than there is with illegal drugs,” said Representative Bradley. “We have here potential programs to help reduce the rate of overdose and death… and one is immunity for emergency 911 calls, the medical amnesty program, and another is the Narcan program to keep Narcan in vehicles so we can respond right away.”
“The Good Samaritan laws and Narcan programs honor life…this is an issue that unites people across the political spectrum and I find that personally refreshing,” said Jon Sanders of the John Locke Foundation.