The Truth About Being a Police Officer, Part 2 – The Opioid Crisis

Today's post is part 2 of my interview with Ryan who blogs at Arrest Your Debt. In Part 1 of the interview, I asked Ryan to talk about what it was like being a police officer in a racially charged environment. I asked him if he saw racism in the police force; how he felt about the stereotypes. His answers were honest and transparent. If you haven't read part 1, I'd encourage you to check it out here

I mentioned in part 1 that much of Ryan's writing is to help people get out of debt. And he's not afraid to tackle controversial issues like how participation trophies lead to financial failure.

Part 2

In part 2 of our interview, I asked Ryan to talk about how the first responders (police and fire departments) deal with the opioid crisis. The topic is personal to me. Our son, Jason, is a recovering heroin addict who battled his addiction for almost twelve years. I'm happy to report he's been in recovery for just over one year. You can read the story of his addiction here. I've also written about his recovery here

Addiction knows no boundaries. It crosses all racial and socioeconomic lines. It's in the largest cities and the most remote rural areas. First responders like Ryan see addiction at its worse. Their calls come when someone is in crisis. That could be from an overdose or from someone who has become violent because of their altered state. 

Methamphetamine is notorious for inciting violence in users. Ryan knows this first hand. He lost his partner and best friend in a shooting with someone who was high on meth. He talked about that in Part 1. In Part 2, I asked for his perspective on how bad the drug problem is from his perspective as a police officer and first responder.

Here's what he had to say.

In the first part of our interview, you talked briefly about losing your partner and best friend in the line of duty. You said the shooter was high on methamphetamine. How bad is the drug problem in your city?

Methamphetamine runs rampant in Arizona, partly because we are so close to the border with Mexico. The majority of methamphetamine in the United States comes from Mexico so we usually can get it much cheaper than the east coast. 

Phoenix and Tucson are two central distribution points for methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. It’s not uncommon for our drug interdiction guys to pull over vehicles with hidden compartments that contain hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of narcotics and dangerous drugs.

In conjunction with a large supply of drugs traveling through our state, we also have increased violence. Much of the violence is attributed to illegal substances because the drug mules carry weapons, as do the local dealers. In addition to the dealers, many of the drug users also carry weapons because everyone is afraid of getting ripped off.

There really is no loyalty among thieves so being a drug user is not only dangerous due to the substance abuse, but you can also be killed just so someone can steal your money or drugs.

Give us an idea of what it’s like to go on these calls. 

When we go to calls of people in an altered state, we know we are going to be dealing with someone who is either seriously mentally ill (SMI) or high on some type of drug. Both instances are dangerous and can be difficult to tell apart.

As far as someone in a drug-induced state, it really depends on the drug they are on and their reaction to the drug. For instance, some people are angry drunks while others are calm and cuddly. The same goes for narcotics or dangerous drugs. Some people are filled with rage while others are pretty chill.

When we are en route to a call like this, we always prepare for the worst but hope for the best. I assume the person is going to attack me so I am on my highest guard. This doesn’t mean I use more force than is necessary but it keeps me aware of the possibility that the situation could turn bad at any moment. If I approached the individual expecting them to be calm and collective, that’s when my guard would be down and I could be overtaken by surprise. 

Police officer mindset

As far as our mindset goes, it really is two-fold. If the person has a mental health issue, I have complete compassion for them because I know they can’t control what their mind is doing. I have mental health issues in my family so I am empathetic.

As far as those who are in drug-induced rages, it gets old very quickly. The reason for this is because of the frequency of contact with people in these states. I’m pulling this number out of thin air but I would guess that 60% – 70% of the calls we go on each day involve someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

It’s amazing the number of lives that are destroyed by these poisons we put in our bodies and the lives that are destroyed around us. It’s frustrating to deal with these calls because, on the one hand, addicts and alcoholics are willingly putting these substances into their bodies and then causing problems.

On the other hand, addiction is no joke. While I say they “willingly” took the drug, it’s not really that simple. As first responders we know that often the addicts are not in control and the drugs have taken over their minds. It’s just frustrating because at one point they chose this route which has now caused problems for other people – and for me having to deal with their drug-induced state.

How often are these calls to help someone who has overdosed?

Calls of overdoses are not as frequent as you might think. When someone overdoses, dispatch usually sends both police and fire because drug users can be very unpredictable. As police, we are there to keep the peace and to keep fire safe. We generally are not there for any criminal matter but unfortunately, drug users don’t know or believe that.

In reality, most of the overdose calls I went to involved someone who was already deceased. The reason for this really comes down to drug users in general and their paranoia. Many times, people use drugs together. If one of them starts to overdose, the others are not always willing to call for help because they know that the police will show up. Because of this, many users quickly leave their dying friend to fight for their life on their own.

It’s incredibly sad that people are not willing to help their “friends” out because they care more about being caught with drugs than actually saving a life. 

The Good Samaritan Law

Due to this fear, the Arizona legislature recently passed the Good Samaritan Law which protects 911 callers from a drug possession arrest if they are calling to help an overdose victim. In reality, I can’t remember anyone sticking around for an overdose victim. The people that actually do call 911 are long gone before any of us arrive.

As an officer, I fully support the Good Samaritan Law because people should not be afraid to call for help if their buddy is dying. When we respond with fire, we are there to save a life – not to look for someone to arrest.

With the new law being passed about three years ago, I haven’t seen much change. Hopefully, we can continue to educate more addicts that human life is more important than possible jail time, which is not something we are there to investigate.

Image of pills on the cardiogram with stethoscope

Police and firefighters are both considered first responders. How do you coordinate the calls? 

When we get a call of an overdose, both police and fire respond at the same time. It comes out as an emergency hot tone and we drop everything to go to the call. If fire arrives first, they will stage down the street until we get there. The reason for this is the safety of the firefighters. If they arrive and now are assaulted by people high on drugs, we now have to worry about rescuing the firefighters as well as the overdose victim. 

In Arizona, we share radio channels for these calls so we can talk to the fire engine directly when we are en route to the call for a coordinated response.

If the police arrive first, we will enter the location and find the person that needs help. Should they need CPR we will administer it. If not, we will secure the scene and make it safe for the fire department to enter. 

Most first responders carry Narcan (used to revive someone who has overdosed). It’s become controversial. People say, why do we keep reviving the same people over and over. How do you feel about that? What’s the city’s policy on using Narcan?

As I type this, police officers currently do not carry Narcan. As stated earlier, if someone has stopped breathing, we will give them CPR until the fire department arrives and can administer the Narcan. 

However, earlier this week I received notice that our department will start training and equipping police officers with Narcan so we can administer it to overdose victims if we arrive first. 

I fully support the use of Narcan. It is an amazing drug. I have seen people dying in front of me with shallow breaths, totally incoherent in a drug-induced coma. The fire department will inject Narcan into them and they will snap out of the drug-induced state and be totally normal within five minutes. It’s absolutely incredible.

You can read more about how Narcan works, but in essence, it blocks the receptors in the brain from the narcotic and all effects of the illegal drug are canceled. It literally saves peoples lives within minutes and I have seen this happen many times.

In Arizona, there are several groups that hand out Narcan to drug users and encourage people to keep it on them so they can use it to revive others in the event they overdose. There are pros and cons to this from my experience dealing with users.

On the one hand, it undoubtedly has saved many lives. On the other hand, I have heard addicts tell me that they feel more comfortable using larger amounts of drugs because they know that their friends can give them Narcan in a worst-case scenario.

I don’t have any statistics whether Narcan has increased or decreased drug usage but from my gut feeling, I would guess that usage has increased but overdose deaths have decreased.

In your time on as a law enforcement officer, how much worse is the drug problem now versus when you first started?

The use of illegal substances seems to go in cycles. I would assume it follows the availability of the drug from the distributors. There are periods of time when a certain drug is more prevalent than others. For instance, a few years ago “bath salts” and “spice” were a huge problem.

People were using bath salts and literally chewing faces off other people. It was like a real-life zombie apocalypse. I went on several calls where people smoked bath salts or spice and absolutely lost it. When I worked in child crimes, I had to investigate a crime where a dad smoked spice and then physically abused his infant so badly the child eventually died from his injuries.

When the father came out of his drug-induced state, he had no recollection of what happened. He now is forced to live with the consequences of what happened when he decided to smoke that drug.

Spice is still an issue but it is not nearly as bad as it was a few years ago. The same goes for methamphetamine and heroin. The widespread usage tends to go in waves.

Going on calls where someone has overdosed has to be one of the hardest parts of your job. How do you deal with it?

Unfortunately, over time these types of calls become routine. As police officers, we really are screwed up individuals. In order to function in this life, we literally learn to detach from our emotions on a regular basis. I have seen dead babies that were left in hot cars, held the hand of a man as he was dying from gunshot wounds, and other terrible situations. If I were to actually process these things as a human being, there is no way I would be able to function. I would have more mental health problems that I would like to admit.

Most of us get through life by being able to detach and become numb. Just like when little kids would tell me about their horrific experiences, in order to do my job I had to look at that child as an object. The child was a “victim” and I needed to learn, “who, what, when, where, and why.” 

Disconnecting

The same goes for overdose victims. If I were to connect to that person as a human being, I would be an emotional wreck. Instead, we treat the person like an object and a crime scene. That’s the only way we can do the job without breaking down emotionally.

The problem with this disconnect is there are many of us who are unable to turn our emotions back on. There is a huge problem with divorce in the police profession because frankly, cops that don’t cope well with stress are huge jerks. Those cops are the ones we read about in the paper and see on the news. 

I’m not making an excuse for their behavior but their inability to flip back and forth between shutting down emotionally and being human usually results in bad behavior and being that “jerk cop” that pulls you over.

What kinds of treatment options does your city have for addicts? Are treatment and counseling available in city and county jails?

In Arizona, our main drug rehab program is the Treatment Assessment Screening Center commonly referred to as TASC. This program is connected with our court system so that general addicts who have a first-time offense don’t sit in jail. 

TASC is a drug diversion program where people can enroll in this program rather than serving jail time. It involves drug rehab and screening for those who want it. Users can also refuse TASC and serve jail time instead but that’s rarely the option chosen.

There are TASC locations throughout Arizona and they offer:

The other main state-funded rehab center is Community Bridges Inc or CBI. CBI specializes in mental health treatment but has a separate faction to help people detox as well. People with mental health issues often self medicate with illegal substances to counter their symptoms.

There are also many private drug rehab programs but most of these programs require private health insurance and can be quite expensive. 

As far as the jails go, detox programs generally do not start until the offender has been released as either time served or as some part of early release program. People addicted to drugs often go through terrible withdrawal symptoms which can cause them to become very sick. The jails here have medical staff on-site to assist with the withdrawal symptoms.

You are on the front lines of the addiction epidemic. In your view, how can we better deal with addiction?

If I had the answer to this question, I would be a millionaire. The truth is, law enforcement is never going to win the “war on drugs.” There are too many incentives for people to continue producing drugs and there’s no way law enforcement can monitor every aspect of the border or peoples' lives. (Nor do we want law enforcement that involved in our lives)

I would say the absolute best way is to further focus our money on education and prevention rather than putting our money fighting the aftermath. If we can cut down on the number of people who use drugs, through education and prevention, it will decrease the profitability of the drug trade thereby impacting the cartels.

Some people say we should legalize all drugs and that would take away the issues with the violence and drug cartels. In my view, this is a terrible idea because it would create even more addicts and destroy more lives. Some of these illegal drugs are incredibly addictive and people can become hooked on them immediately. By making drugs more accessible, we are inviting more trouble. 

Even someone who is properly educated may still fall victim to the addiction of drugs. However, early intervention measures, like better-funded treatment options, may help with this systemic problem. 

I feel our money is wasted when we spend most of our time and resources arresting drug addicts. This is dealing with the effect of the problem rather than the cause. We should be focusing more on the head of the snake rather than the tail. Cut off the supplier as often as we can and the addicts' supply will begin to dry up.

Photo of Ryan in uniform

Final thoughts

I'm incredibly grateful for Ryan for taking the time to share his perspective on two of the significant social issues of our time – racial tension and the opioid epidemic. So many times these days we form opinions based on what we read on the internet or see on our favorite cable news channel. It seems we've become lazy in seeking and listening to another view of an issue. If you're one who has had a negative view of police based on media coverage, I hope in hearing from Ryan helped you see it from another perspective.

As you heard from him, police officers are human. They make mistakes. Some of them make serious mistakes that cost people their lives. Sadly, it seems like those are the only ones you hear about. I believe the vast majority of police are men and women who get into the profession to serve and protect. They do so at great sacrifice. I was particularly struck by Ryan's description of having to “disconnect” from the emotions involved with seeing the worst parts of people. Hearing about some of those stories breaks my heart.

To Ryan and his police brethren, thank you for your service. Thank you for allowing us to see what it's like for you, as a police officer, to do your job. And remember. Police officers have families at home. They sacrifice right along with the officers. Stay safe, my friend! Thank you again for your service.

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