One hundred seventy-five Americans die each day as a result of opioid addiction, according to recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics. What’s more, of the 23.5 million people in need of opioid addiction treatment, only 11 percent can access it, says John Rosenthal, co-founder and chairman of the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative.

 

As Jessica Scullin, supervisory social science analyst from the U.S. Department of Justice, bluntly put it, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

 

This was the sobering discussion this afternoon from the IACP panel, How to Build Partnerships Between Law Enforcement and Public Health Agencies to Address Opioid Use. But rather than discuss the problem from the perspective of having their backs to the wall, the panelists discussed some successful programs that may effectively combat the opioid epidemic.

 

As Rosenthal explained, the issue of the opioid crisis is not that it impacts people from all walks of life, but rather that there is a “stigma of shame” around seeking help for what has become a common problem. As he explained, the genesis to the opioid crisis is not unlike other high-profile issues: bad public policy leads to bad public outcomes, and law enforcement agencies are left to pick up the pieces.

 

He described a similar experience working with officials in Massachusetts to curb gun violence. By changing the conversation, bi-partisan efforts led to a 60 percent drop is gun violence in the state, and he says opioids are no difference. By looking at the issue as a disease and not a crime, Rosenthal explains, perceptions can shift. 

 

He emphasized the need to teaching a simple fact about opioid use. 

 

“Opioids change brain chemistry so you can’t feel pleasure without them,” he explains, which was the key to convincing law enforcement, the public and leadership that victims need treatment, not arrest. 

 

This led to the creation of the Police Assisted Addiction & Recovery Initiative (PAARI) in June 2015 as a 501c3 non-profit to establish pre-arrest programs that create immediate and stigma-free entry points to treatment. Simply put, anyone with an opioid addiction can come in to a police department, turn over their drugs and get treatment. Since the program began, 300 departments in 31 states have joined, but what’s more, 12,000 people have entered treatment and partner areas have seen a drop of 15-20 percent in ancillary crimes, such as breaking and entering, theft and more, that often support opioid addicts.

 

As Rosenthal described, a recent study by the New England Journal of Medicine noted that in Gloucester, Mass., police were twice as successful in getting people to treatment facilities than healthcare professionals. While he did necessarily have evidence as to why this is the case, Rosenthal did explain that when police need help, the public generally are not inclined to say “no,” and professionals in treatment facilities are no different. 

 

The success of law enforcement efforts to work with health professionals to address the opioid crisis is paying dividends around the country, especially in Dayton, Ohio. As Major Brian Johns, Commander of Investigations & Administrative Services Division with the Dayton Police Department, explained, opioid deaths in the city rose from 127 for all of 2010 to 386 in just the first six months of 2017.

 

And the toll has been personal: Major Johns described losing two family members to opioid addiction in recent years.

To confront this troubling trend, Major Johns and others worked with community health leaders, like Emily Surico of  East End Community Services, to develop programs similar to the PAARI program. While the jury may be out as to how effective this program may be in Dayton, Major Johns and Surico seemed excited with the work being done to help addicts address both their physical and mental states.