Jail vs Treatment: Law Enforcement Summit Seeks Solutions

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Arrest or treat? The debate rages on. As the nation struggles with an opioid epidemic that has touched nearly every family in America, law enforcement officials continue to look for potential solutions.

Some argue that arresting substance users and housing them in jail doesn’t remedy the problem. Others contend that law enforcement agencies could play a key role in solving the opioid crisis.

A New Approach?

In early December, hundreds of police officers from around the country met in Boston to discuss their role in the growing epidemic. The summit was organized by the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative (PAARI). Officers in attendance shared ideas about how to help people with a substance abuse issue and prevent deaths from drug overdoses.

Many discussions centered around how to get people into addiction treatment instead of thrown in jail.

Officers talked about their available resources and the development of new tools to assist community members struggling with chemical dependency.

The summit included talks about a variety of potential solutions including:

  • Implementing protective custody laws – officers could take people to the nearest medical facility rather than to jail
  • Increasing mental health services
  • Partnering with schools to improve substance abuse education

Some police departments have already made changes in this direction, including the Arlington Police Department. Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan shared the efforts made by his law enforcement community, stating, “We stopped waiting for the 911 line to ring and the bodies to turn up, and we’ve employed the use of a social worker who is engaged in outreach work. Rather than wait for them to overdose, we’re meeting them where they’re at, getting them equipped with Narcan and working with their families on a long-term intervention plan.”

Is it Working?

In Ryan’s jurisdiction, at least one fatal overdose occurred every month between 2015 and 2016. With the new initiatives in place, they had zero fatal overdoses in 2017. Ryan noted the key is for the “…community, as a whole, to support people suffering from substance disorder and not dehumanize them.”

Ryan and others suggest that police departments consider moving from arrest and incarceration to treatment and prevention – viewing substance abuse as an illness rather than a crime. This revision would require a change in perspective, a change in laws, and a change in response efforts.

Ryan noted, “The leaders around America are taking the risk in their jurisdictions to get out of their comfort zone of arrest and incarcerate to partnering with public health to do the right thing.”

But is it the right thing? Will decriminalizing substance abuse and making these other efforts really make a difference? Ryan admitted, “Being smart on crime and addiction is difficult work.” He added, “If we don’t start looking at this thing in a more sophisticated and smart way about addressing addiction in the community, we’re going to continue to be frustrated with the results.”

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