Academy Award-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s fatal heroin overdose in February has helped to bring to focus the growing heroin epidemic in the United States. According to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of drug overdoses in the U.S. has grown at a staggering pace — only motor vehicle accidents are a larger cause of accidental deaths in the country.
From 1999 to 2010, the number of overdose deaths more than doubled. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that as of 2011, 4.2 million Americans over the age of 11 have tried heroin at least once, with a quarter of these likely to become addicts.
While heroin overdoses trail behind cocaine- and opioid-related deaths, the expanded rate of misuse — particularly, among 45- to 54-year-olds — among all three drug groups has led the law enforcement community to consider this a public safety emergency.
Attempts to address this problem, however, are hampered by a lack of recent, comprehensive data on drug-related deaths. This issue reflects a deeply-rooted, fundamental problem in the nation’s law enforcement community concerning the impetus to fully and accurately report on police actions and to share this information with other agencies and with the public.
On Wednesday, at a national summit on drug abuse in Washington, D.C., organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, almost every police official who spoke complained about the lack of current data on overdoses. One law enforcement official even admitted that he had to subpoena the needed data from the local medical examiner.
“I don’t care about the names of the individuals, I just need the numbers!” cried Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey.
The lack of accurate data denies law enforcement the ability to quickly respond to an overdose or to patrol and sweep hotspots likely to produce overdoses.The current data blackout has forced law enforcement to reactively respond to the heroin crisis, instead of taking a proactive posture, thereby limiting law enforcement’s effectiveness.
Additionally, the lack of current data may lead to departments allocating assets in the wrong areas. St. Paul, Minn. Police Chief Thomas Smith told the summit that while heroin overdoses have flatlined or receded in the Minneapolis/St. Paul urban area, the affluent Minneapolis suburbs have seen significant spikes.
The situation has forced different police departments to adjust in creative ways. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department and the New York Police Department, for example, have started to track the use of naloxone — an opioid antagonist used as an anti-overdose drug by first responders — by emergency medical technicians and firefighters.
“There has to be a law enforcement response to this but we also need to think of this as a public problem,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told the summit.
Holder pointed out that although the law enforcement community has known about the increase in overdose deaths for some time, this is the first time there has been a call to adjust the system to effectively respond to it.
“This kind of sneaked up on us,” he said. “No question that is something we have to deal with.”
Most police departments are running into difficulty in regards to the current privacy laws, which dictate that statistical data released from a governmental agency may not have personally-identifiable information or enough non-personal information that a conclusion on a person’s identity can be deduced. For example, if a report indicates treatment information about two anonymous drug overdoses in a small town, and there have been only two overdoses in that town, the reports are considered personally-identifiable and barred from release.
Law enforcement does have the right to collect and share personally-identifiable information without consent, but only in response to a current crisis or in the course of an investigation. The law enforcement community is pushing for changes in the privacy laws to permit greater interagency information-sharing and the creation of national and regional databases to help centralize the needed information.
Still, arguably the largest problem behind the data blackout is the law enforcement community itself. In many situations, police forces of all sizes throughout the nation have failed in their efforts toward collecting or sharing essential data — particularly, data critical to the police department.
In San Diego, for example, the department instituted a policy in 2000 requiring officers to collect racial data for every traffic stop in an attempt to track patterns of race bias. In January, the city’s police chief admitted that the department’s officers were not collecting the information and promised to reform the system.
In police departments from Seattle to Philadelphia, critical datasets reflecting police misconduct, disciplinary actions against police officers and racial makeup of stops, among other issues, have been lost or sealed — or they simply don’t exist.