PERF's new report - The Unprecedented Opioid Epidemic: As Overdoses Become a Leading Cause of Death, Police, Sheriffs, and Health Agencies Must Step Up Their Response
This report is available online at http://www.policeforum.org/assets/opioids2017.pdf.
As the title of the report suggests, the opioids crisis is continuing to worsen, despite some amazing work over the last few years by police departments, public health agencies, drug treatment programs, hospitals, and many other organizations. The latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in August, indicate that drug overdose deaths totaled 64,070 in 2016 - a 21-percent increase over 2015. Approximately three-fourths of those deaths involved opioid drugs.
Furthermore, the new CDC statistics confirm what many police chiefs have been telling us: Fentanyl and carfentanil are driving the sharp increases in opioid deaths. In 2016, CDC identified 15,466 fatalities resulting from heroin overdoses, but significantly more deaths - 20,145 - caused by fentanyl or other synthetic opioids.
To put these numbers in context, consider the following:
- Drug overdose deaths last year were more than double the number of homicides in the peak year for murders, back in 1991.
- Drug overdose deaths were more numerous than automobile fatalities in the worst year ever, back in 1972, when the only safety devices in cars were seat belts.
- Drug overdose deaths are also more numerous that HIV deaths in 1995, which was the worst year of the AIDS epidemic.
- Drug overdose deaths last year also outnumber American fatalities during the entire course of the Vietnam War.
PERF has been focusing attention on this ongoing tragedy for three years. Since 2014, we have convened three national conferences on the opioids crisis, and the report I am sending you today is our third major report on it.
We keep coming back to opioids because the crisis has not yet peaked. It shows no signs of abating - even though many police and sheriffs' departments are breaking new ground on a daily basis, coming up with new initiatives that would have been off their radar screen a few years ago.
For example, many police agencies today are actively working to get addicted persons into treatment - in some cases, inviting addicts to come to a police station in order to get enrolled in a treatment program. And when a heroin addict has a nonfatal overdose, some departments send police officers and health clinicians to knock on the addict's front door the next morning, to offer help and make sure they know about treatment options and other services that are available.
We are told that addicted persons and their family members truly appreciate these "house calls," because for many people, there is still a stigma to drug abuse, so they can speak more freely in their own homes than they would if they went to a government office to ask for help.
Another major development is the increasing trend by police and other agencies to gather intelligence about overdoses and analyze the information quickly to prevent deaths. If a batch of fentanyl-laced heroin is causing fatal overdoses, police are scrambling to detect it quickly, connect the dots, and issue warnings to prevent further deaths.
Because four out of five heroin addicts began with prescription opioids, not heroin, police also are seeing a new role for themselves in helping to break that pattern, by warning community members about the risks associated with opioid-based pain relievers. The federal CDC agency has produced reports, fact sheets, brochures, posters, and other resources that police can use to educate the public about these risks.
One of the toughest issues about the opioid crisis is what role prosecutors can take to reduce the deaths. This is explored in detail in our new report. Unfortunately, current federal drug laws are not well-suited to support heroin or fentanyl prosecutions. However, we identified certain types of situations where state, local, and federal prosecutors can and should target opioid dealers and distributors.
PERF is grateful to Commissioner James P. O'Neill and the New York City Police Department, which generously hosted our conference in April 2017, and whose officials provided a wealth of information about New York City's sophisticated, Compstat-based opioids reduction program.