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Fighting the Opioid Crisis

National Institute of Justice

Convening Police Leaders and Researchers to Learn Promising Practices and to Inform Research Agenda

Director Muhlhausen's prepared remarks at the NIJ-hosted Opioid Research Summit.

NIJ Director David B. Muhlhausen at the podium

NIJ Director Muhlhausen

Good morning and welcome to Washington, DC. It’s a privilege to host you here today at the National Institute of Justice. I’m particularly honored to have the Attorney General and the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General with us this morning.

We have an incredibly impressive group of attendees gathered today. There are more than 100 of you, representing law enforcement, the research community, public health, medicine, and other groups. The individuals gathered in this room come from all corners of the country and work across many disciplines, but share a commitment to developing an effective response—and ultimately solutions—to the opioid crisis.

Opioid Crisis Overview

So again, welcome. The National Institute of Justice is thrilled to host this convening to discuss one of the most pressing issues in America today.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, NIJ is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. At NIJ, our mission is to advance justice through research and science. Our work spans a wide portfolio that includes every aspect of criminal and juvenile justice. In all our work, we aim to answer the most pressing and important questions of the field.

As you can imagine, understanding and addressing the opioid crisis is currently one of our biggest priorities.

The people in this room are more familiar with the statistics than anyone: the opioid crisis kills more than 100 Americans every day, with tens of thousands dying of overdose each year. You’ve seen prescription drug monitoring programs, prescriber education, and anti-diversion legislation. You’ve seen the rise of oxycodone and pill mills, which have been replaced by heroin, fentanyl, and other synthetic opioids. These drugs proliferate faster than we can create tests for them, and have escalated the rate of drug overdoses each year.

The law enforcement officers and other first responders in the room are all too familiar with what these statistics look like on the ground, with each individual death. You’ve seen the harm that radiates out, to affect families, friends, communities, and our country as a whole. Many of the individuals in this room know better than anyone the difficulty of developing a holistic and effective response to this multifaceted and evolving problem.

NIJ Is Committed to a Practitioner-Led Response

At NIJ, we aren’t on the front lines. But we can help provide those who are with timely data and research to help better understand the nature of the problem and the impact of various responses.

As the crisis has unfolded, NIJ’s research and other work around opioids has also grown dramatically.

Our Drugs and Crime Research Portfolio furthers the Department of Justice’s priority to combat the opioid epidemic through research that promotes effective law enforcement, court, and corrections responses to illegal drug markets. This includes research on ways to deter, investigate, and disrupt drug markets, as well as to prevent or reduce drug-related crime and violence.

Collaborations across NIJ science offices have produced research on deterrence, investigation, and disruption of illegal prescription drug markets. This year’s solicitation for Research and Evaluation on Drugs and Crime prioritized opioid-related criminal investigation, prosecution, drug intelligence, and community surveillance relevant to narcotics law enforcement, forensic science, and medico-legal death investigations.

NIJ is the only federal agency that supports forensic science programs dedicated to research, development, and evaluation in conjunction with capacity building, technical assistance, and extramural projects. These programs are informed by practitioners, and in recent years they have included support for opioids-related needs.

The Paul Coverdell Forensic Science Improvement Grants Program awards grants directly to state and local forensic science labs to address emerging forensic science issues as well as provide support for programs to eliminate backlogs, train personnel, and improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science and medical examiner services.

To help meet opioid-related challenges to the forensic science community, NIJ has prioritized opioid-focused forensic science needs, and allocated more than $14 million in fiscal year 18 Coverdell funding to address opioid-related challenges to the forensic science community. More than a third of awards made under the fiscal year 18 Coverdell Program will directly target the challenges related to the opioid crisis.

As first responders, law enforcement are heavily impacted by the opioid crisis. Beyond the stress of responding to overdose calls, law enforcement face exposure and other dangers. With this in mind, NIJ recently initiated partnerships with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which will research first responder exposure risk due to opioids and provide guidelines to help personnel reduce this risk.

NIJ’s Forensic Technology Center of Excellence continues to develop resources to facilitate knowledge and technology transfer, including two recent webinar series and several episodes of the “Just Science” podcast dedicated to combatting the opioid crisis.

In addition to this week’s convening, we have held a number of opioid-related meetings. We partner with other Department of Justice agencies that are co-located within this building, including the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and the Office for Victims of Crime.

Earlier this year we partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a Federal Interagency Medico-legal Death Investigation Working Group. This working group represents nearly a dozen agencies, and allows us to coordinate activities to strengthen the U.S. medical examiner and coroner system. Through a partnership with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Institute of Drug Abuse, NIJ led a meeting on drug recognition and impairment research.

At the upcoming International Association of Chiefs of Police conference next month, NIJ will host a panel to discuss the opioid crisis and law enforcement response. We’re lucky to have three of the individuals in this room on that panel, Chief Brandon del Pozo from Burlington, Vermont, Dr. Mallory O’Brien from the Medical College of Wisconsin and our own Dr. Frances Scott from the NIJ Office of Investigative and Forensic Sciences. I hope to see many of you there.

NIJ is committed to a practitioner-led response. In all our work, we aim to identify “what works” in criminal justice, and to ensure that this information is widely disseminated in the field.

Despite the pressing need for research to guide the law enforcement response to opioids, there are limited evidence-based resources available to assist law enforcement leaders. Research regarding “what works” in addressing the opioid crisis lags behind the efforts to combat the crisis, and there are limited platforms to share promising practices between agencies.

While NIJ has funded extensive opioids-related research and other projects, research takes time. We also recognize the pressing nature of the crisis. Law enforcement responding to overdose calls every day can’t wait three years for a research study to be published. You need to act now. With this in mind, NIJ launched a series of publications called Notes from the Field. The goal of Notes from the Field is to provide a platform for law enforcement and other criminal justice leaders to share their thoughts, expertise, and promising practices on the opioids crisis and other pressing issues.

Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative

This week’s gathering is part of NIJ’s Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative, which the RAND Corporation implements along with partners including the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF.

As NIJ director, I want to ensure that all of our research is timely and responsive to the field. Our Priority Needs Initiative is a mechanism for NIJ to convene criminal justice leaders to exchange ideas, discuss promising practices, and build connections among constituencies. These meetings allow us to listen to and learn from the field. We rely heavily on the resulting reports when forming our research priorities and making funding decisions.

My hope is that our conversations over the next two days will help us establish a research agenda to eliminate research gaps.

This week’s convening is a rare opportunity to bring together leading actors to discuss the complex issues around the opioid crisis and law enforcement response. I’m very grateful for your input and participation, and want to thank you all again for making the time to attend.

Thank You’s

I’d be remiss not to thank a few people who have made this convening possible. In particular, I’d like to thank Dr. Brian Jackson, from RAND, and Dr. Sean Goodison, from PERF. Brian and Sean have helped organize all of our Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative meetings, and I’m grateful for their good work.

I’d also like to acknowledge PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler for his vision and leadership in orchestrating this event. Quite simply, this week’s convening would not have happened without Chuck Wexler.

We’re also grateful to PERF for providing the coffee in the back of the room.

I’d also like to thank NIJ’s Steve Schuetz, who oversees our Priority Criminal Justice Needs Initiative and has been instrumental in organizing this convening.

Thank you, Steve.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to thank our Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, for making the time in his schedule to join us today. The Attorney General’s presence is a testament to this administration’s commitment to fighting this crisis.

Introduction the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General

Now it is my pleasure to introduce to you the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Matt Dummermuth.

Matt joined the Department of Justice just a few weeks ago, as the leader of the Office of Justice Programs. I couldn’t be happier to have him on board. Matt is a Justice Department veteran, having served most recently as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa from 2007 to 2009.

Matt previously served in the Justice Department as Counsel and Special Assistant to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, and as a Special Assistant United States Attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia. He graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, and clerked for the Honorable Judge David R. Hansen of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Matt is a seventh-generation Iowan who was in private practice in his native state before joining OJP. Thank you very much for being here this morning, Matt.

Introducing Chuck Wexler

I greatly appreciate Attorney General Sessions delivering his remarks.  NIJ is honored to have him here today.

I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce our MC for the day, Chuck Wexler. I’m sure many of you are already familiar with Chuck.

Chuck is the Executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. PERF is an organization of law enforcement officials and others dedicated to increasing professionalism in policing.

He is currently leading a project to reform police agencies’ policies, training, and equipment regarding police use of force, based on the core principle that the sanctity of human life is at the heart of the mission of policing. As part of this effort, PERF has released a set of guiding principles on use of force, as well as a training guide to help police agencies put these principles into effect.

Chuck has also led PERF efforts to document the increasing role of police agencies in reducing opioid overdose deaths in the United States, the use of body-worn cameras by police officers, cybercrime investigations, improving the police response to sexual assault crimes, and other issues.

Since 2016, Chuck has written op-eds for the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and other news media on reducing use of force, limiting dangerous police pursuits, barring police from shooting at vehicles, and making policing safer for everyone.

In addition to national policy and practice studies, Chuck has directed projects with local police departments in Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, as well as internationally in Jamaica, Tanzania, the Middle East, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London to develop violence reduction strategies and improve the delivery of police services.

Prior to joining PERF, Chuck was an assistant to the country’s first Director on the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He is a native of Boston and has held a number of positions in the Boston Police Department, where he was instrumental in developing and managing the Community Disorders Unit, which earned a reputation for prosecuting and preventing racially motivated crime.

Chuck earned an undergraduate degree from Boston University and a PhD in urban studies and planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was awarded an Order of the British Empire for his work with British and American police agencies.

I am particularly proud to call Chuck a mentor and a personal friend. It’s my pleasure to have him here to facilitate today’s session. I’ll turn it over to him.