Only few overdose incidents require police involvement, new Brown study finds

A NEW BROWN UNIVERSITY study found that out of over 200 police reports of overdose incidents, only 1% resulted in arrests or combative behavior. / COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – Most overdose incidents do not involve safety concerns or require the intervention of law enforcement, a new Brown University study shows.

Police officers are often part of a team of first responders dispatched to answer overdose calls, but an analysis of more than 200 incident reports in one Rhode Island city shows that only few of these situations involved combative behavior or resulted in arrests.

“It was surprising and promising to find that arrests only occurred in about 1% of all cases of overdoses attended by police,” said Alexandria Macmadu, study co-author and a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Epidemiology at Brown University’s School of Public Health. “The research shows that there were few situations that truly required law enforcement presence due to safety concerns.”

The study was conducted by a Brown-led research team in collaboration with Project Weber/RENEW, a nonprofit that provides harm reduction and recovery support services for people who use drugs, engage in sex work or are unhoused.

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The team analyzed 211 incident reports of police responding to an overdose between Sept. 1, 2019, and Aug. 31, 2020, from an unnamed city in Rhode Island, obtained through a public records request. Researchers looked at characteristics of incidents, individual characteristics of the person who overdosed, administration of naloxone and reports describing the person who overdosed as “combative.” Results were then published in the Harm Reduction Journal.

The analysis found that arrests were reported only in 1% of the cases and the people who overdosed were described as “combative” only in 1% of the cases. In addition to this, police only administered naloxone in about 10% of the cases, while in 65% of the cases other first responders administered the medication.

“Municipalities often exceptionalize the response to overdoses compared to other medical emergencies by co-dispatching police and EMS,” said Annajane Yolken, study co-author director of strategy at Project Weber/RENEW. “The research highlights that most often overdoses in the community are handled effectively by emergency medical services, who most often show up first on scene and are the first to administer naloxone.”

The presence of police can often have unintended harmful effects on people in an overdose situation, said Macmadu, but despite this there has been limited research into the role of police in responding to these incidents. Analyzing and understanding the role of police in answering overdose incidents is particularly important from a racial justice lens, said Macmadu.

“We know from decades of research, both in Rhode Island and across the country, that fear of police involvement and arrest for things like drug possession can strongly deter people who use drugs from calling 911 when an overdose happens,” Macmadu said. “Because every minute matters during an overdose, this delay in seeking help can cost lives.”

The results show that there is a need for a new and more effective approach to overdoses, Macmadu said. In their conclusion, researchers recommended that all jurisdictions ensure they have enough first responder staffing and resources to guarantee a rapid response, limiting the police’s role. Until this is achieved, police and other first responders should be dispatched at the same time, with police resuming patrol once other responders are on the scene. Researchers also said warrant searches of people on the scene should be prohibited.

“We think that this research presents municipalities with an opportunity to reframe the thinking about a reliance on a dual response to overdoses by both EMS and police, when it appears that the police presence not only might be unnecessary, but also might have a negative impact on the person who has overdosed and others who are on scene,” Macmadu said.

Claudia Chiappa is a PBN staff writer. You may contact her at Chiappa@PBN.com.

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