Opioid Crisis: Two Chiefs Discuss the Challenges, Changes, and Results in Their Jurisdictions
Dayton (Ohio) Police Chief Richard Biehl and Burlington (Vermont) Police Chief Brandon del Pozo discuss the challenges of introducing institutional change across all of the agencies necessary to address the opioid crisis. They also explain the changes that they have made in their jurisdictions and the outcomes of those changes.
BRANDON DEL POZO: I found as the chief of police in a small American city working for a mayor who put us at the front of the public health response to the opioid crisis that the biggest obstacle is just getting institutional change to happen. We kind of got into this mess because our institutions weren’t really up to par and weren’t fleet on their feet and weren’t adaptable. And it requires in prison, a new way of doing business. It requires in the hospital, a new way of doing business. It requires in the police station, it requires on the street, a new way of doing business, EMTs, and EMS, and cops. And so the obstacle is just to get people who’ve been doing the same thing for quite a long time to do something different. And that just took time. It took coming around the table, being candid with each other, making commitments to mutual accountability, showing that we were willing to change if other folks are willing to change, and then really having the right leadership. And in our case, it was our mayor and our city council backed by the police department, and with that type of leadership, over months and months of coming around the table, using science, using evidence, and also showing that we’re acting in good faith, we’re finally starting to get the institutional changes that I know across the board will make a difference.
RICHARD BIEHL: First and foremost, we saw this escalation of deaths. So we realized we needed to have life-saving Narcan, Naloxone available to police officers who are often on scene first. Not because they were dispatched, because they drove upon an incident where a person was in overdose. Or they were flagged down as they’re going to the street. So a lot of times, police officers were there before fire, paramedic personnel were able to respond, or even be notified. But then there was an insufficient medication-assisted treatment, there was insufficient bed space, there was insufficient detox space, so all of these were potential barriers. And there was not a really easy way to access treatment for those who were ready for treatment and seeking it. So there wasn’t a single portal where people could go. It was a fragmented, decentralized system of services that needed to be centralized and with a single or minimally easy portal to access that treatment. And so those were all the challenges we faced.
What has happened in Dayton this year, and it really began mid-year last year is a dramatic decline in overdose calls for service, and also subsequent overdose deaths. We have seen a 60 percent decline this year in calls for service for police and also for fire, for overdose. Our deaths are roughly about half of the 566 they were last year at this time, so a remarkable decline in overdose incidents and deaths.
BRANDON DEL POZO: Our collaborations with our partners mean that when you see somebody suffering from opioid abuse, they’re going to get the best scientific-based treatment they can get. When we bring a prisoner—when we arrest somebody and bring that person to prison, they’ll get offered medication-assisted therapy in prison because of the initiatives we’ve collaboratively pursued. When we bring in a person who’s overdosed to the emergency department, they’re not leaving just having survived, hopefully they’re leaving with addiction medication and an appointment with the psychiatrist, same thing in our needle exchange. They’ll be able to leave with medication-assisted therapy. And lastly, I think that our police officers understand addiction in a new way by working with these other partners. It’s no longer stigmatized as some grave moral failing, or something that there’s absolutely no hope for, or something that’s simply illegal. Officers now understand that they’re part of a network of people that see this is a medical issue as well as a legal one, and then there’s real science and evidence in our responses to get people to stay alive and hopefully on the road to recovery.
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