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Police Rethink Tactics In Light Of Opioid Exposure Risk

Jun 1, 2017
Originally published on June 1, 2017 1:09 pm
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Hazardous as they may be for those who take them, opioids are also endangering police in this country. Officers respond to overdoses, they also try to arrest dealers. And as they come in contact with synthetic drugs, the risk of an accidental overdose is greater than in the past. Some drugs are now so potent that just a few grains can kill. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: About two weeks ago in Hartford County, Md., a sheriff's deputy named Kevin Phillips was in someone's basement helping out on a drug overdose call. Hunting around for more drugs, Phillips looked over into a nearby nightstand drawer.

KEVIN PHILLIPS: Didn't see anything, didn't touch anything. It just looked like a junk drawer. And then I shut it. And about two seconds after I shut it, like, my face started burning. I broke out in an immediate sweat. And I just stood there for a couple seconds just kind of like, did I just get exposed to something?

KASTE: A lab test later showed fentanyl, an opioid that's up to 50 times stronger than heroin. He barely made it up the stairs to the kitchen, where an EMT gave him the anti-overdose drug Narcan. He's fine now, but looking back, what's remarkable is that as far as he can tell, he was exposed to the drug just by breathing in some unseen grains that were carried up by the puff of air that came out of the drawer as he shut it.

PHILLIPS: Saying it's so small you can't see it. You don't know where it's at. It's the unknown.

KASTE: And it's making cops rethink their tactics. For instance, SWAT teams - when they raid drug operations, they often start out by tossing in flash-bangs, stun grenades to disorient anyone who might have a gun. But what happens when one of those grenades hits a stash of opioids?

JOHN CAVANNA: It was thick enough where you could see it with flashlight beams.

KASTE: That's Sergeant John Cavanna of the police department in Hartford, Conn. He's describing the white dust that they raised with a flash-bang during a raid last September.

CAVANNA: Officers on my team that made entry immediately started to cough. You know, it caused a very bitter taste in your mouth, and you could feel your face tingling.

KASTE: Cavanna says that experience demonstrates that his team now needs to learn how to shoot while wearing gas masks, but Deputy Chief Brian Foley is more cautious about making drastic changes to tactics and gear.

BRIAN FOLEY: We could wear breathing apparatus and eye protection. We've weighed the options. We've looked at the training. We constantly watch the medical bulletins. And right now, we're pretty much operating status quo. I know it was - three officers had some sickness for a couple hours, but beyond that, I guess they take that over being shot.

KASTE: One reason police are holding off on wearing this cumbersome gear is, of course, Narcan. The anti-overdose drug is an effective safety net, and it's pretty much standard equipment now for all cops and emergency responders in areas with a lot of opioid abuse. Also, while it is dangerous to inhale or touch these drugs, that kind of exposure is not as fast acting as injecting them.

STEVE WOLF: It's different than the intravenous administration where you can just pass out for one second to the next.

KASTE: Steve Wolf is the medical support doctor for the Hartford tactical team. He says the cops wear latex gloves now, which makes it harder to absorb drugs to the skin. And he says having EMTs around does make a huge difference.

WOLF: It's all about the breathing, so - and that's what the Narcan does. It kind of brings you out of it and so you can start breathing, but if you don't have the Narcan, you can still - you can - if you can breathe for the person, they can make it.

KASTE: Still, many police departments are now making masks and even hazmat suits available to their officers depending on the situation. Sergeant Cavanna says it's all about deciding whether you're more worried about fentanyl poisoning or, as he puts it, acute lead poisoning. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.