Latest opioids pose risks to officers
By Scott Bellile
Opioid overdoses are increasing across the country. And to make matters worse, some users’ choice drugs are endangering the police officers who come to rescue them.
In hopes of reducing overdose deaths along with protecting law enforcement, this summer the New London Police Department will equip its officers with naloxone. Naloxone is the opioid reversal drug known by the brand name Narcan.
As defined in the police department’s new policy, nalaxone is “an opioid antagonist and used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose by replacing opioids from opiate receptors to the brain.”
The New London Police and Fire Commission on June 19 approved a police department policy that will allow officers to carry naloxone and administer it to an overdose victim if the officer deems it necessary.
“If you know the ambulance is one minute out and [the victim is] still breathing, you may decide not to because the paramedics are going to be there in 30 seconds,” New London Police Chief Jeff Schlueter explained to the police and fire commission. “But on the other hand, you have that option to do it.”
The commission also approved an agreement to purchase the naloxone nasal spray from Gold Cross Ambulance in exchange for free staff training.
Schlueter said the medication will cost about $50 per dose. NLPD will begin by purchasing 10 doses for $500.
Gold Cross will begin training police on naloxone usage after the Fourth of July, Schlueter said, with a goal of carrying it by the beginning of August.
Police in Weyauwega and Hortonville are already carrying naloxone. Leaders from both police departments expressed interest in discussing their experiences for this story but did not return requests for comment prior to press time.
Currently relying on EMS
NLPD currently relies on Gold Cross Ambulance paramedics to administer naloxone at an overdose scene.
Schlueter said NLPD does not track numbers on how many times Gold Cross has used naloxone to revive somebody during a New London police call. He estimated it to be five to 10 times within the last two years.
Police will begin recording these numbers when they are the ones carrying it, Schlueter said.
Schlueter noted that because Gold Cross ambulances “float” throughout the region, it can take 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive to an emergency scene if one is not situated in New London.
By carrying naloxone on the job, police could act on an unresponsive person before a paramedic arrives.
Commissioner Tom Schmude asked how victims tend to react when they are revived.
“Are they unresponsive, or are they belligerent or wild?” Schmude asked.
“Once they get their Narcan … some of them are very angry that you brought them back,” Schlueter said. “Others are grateful. There’s some that get real disruptive and there’s others that just kind of lay there. Some that vomit. You see all different types of reactions from person to person.”
Because officers typically respond to such an emergency in pairs, they together could control a victim if he or she became violent, Schlueter said.
Protecting the police
Besides saving lives, training police to use naloxone is also about protecting their coworkers.
“One thing I’ve heard from law enforcement across the country is, ‘We’re not paramedics. Why are we giving this shot?’” Schlueter said. “But now the problem is that officers are overdosing across the country by touching stuff accidentally. And it can be in a car search that they lean on a car seat and their hand hits some fentanyl where the person had dumped on the seat. … The next thing you know, you’re overdosing.”
Gold Cross will train the entire NLPD force to administer naloxone. The police station’s dispatchers might be trained too, Schlueter said, just in case an officer in the evidence room were to be exposed to a drug like fentanyl and no officers were in the building to reverse the overdose.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can kill a nonuser by inhalation or absorption through the skin. To survive, an officer who is exposed to it could require multiple doses of naloxone before arriving to the hospital, Schlueter said.
Fentanyl tends to be 10 times stronger than heroin. Schlueter estimated a tenth of a gram of fentanyl delivers the strength of two hits of heroin.
The even deadlier carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl, and “one or two pieces of sand-size of that will roast you,” Schlueter told the commission.
Schlueter told the Press Star the $50 naloxone dosages NLPD plans to buy will have the potential to treat a drug user or a police officer exposed to fentanyl or carfentanil.
Schlueter told the Press Star heroin has been present in the city for five or six years. Police have not confirmed the presence of fentanyl in New London, but word on the street is it’s beginning to appear.
More pieces to consider
Commissioner Lund Cooley asked Schlueter if the police officers could be liable if something goes awry while attempting to save a life.
“Of course like anything and everything that we do in law enforcement, it doesn’t mean that somebody probably could not sue us for something,” Schlueter said. “It would be probably more defendable because you know, [there are] probably state statutes out there protecting us from it. But I don’t foresee anything like that happening.”
Officers carrying naloxone will also need to determine how to keep the antidote within a temperature range of 59-86 degrees Fahrenheit, particularly in the summer and winter. When officers are out in the community, the drug may need to stay inside a running car, Schlueter said.
While Schlueter said introducing naloxone will be a positive move for the community, ultimately family members must convince drug addicts to get help early on.
This is for numerous reasons: Police officers are not trained medical technicians, opioid-reversing antidotes do not have a 100 percent success rate, and sometimes help arrives too late.
“Narcan, we’ve got to remember, is not the answer to all overdoses,” Schlueter said. “It’s kind of a community problem where we have to have the community kick in also. … They can’t be relying on law enforcement to be there to be able to save their loved one. We will carry it for that purpose if we can, but it’s going to take the whole community to curb this situation.”