In this college town on the banks of Lake Champlain, Chief Brandon del Pozo has hired a plain-spoken social worker to oversee opioids policy and has begun mapping heroin deaths the way his former commanders in the New York Police Department track crime.
In New York City, detectives are investigating overdoses with the rigor of homicides even if murder charges are a long shot. They are plying the mobile phones of the dead for clues about suppliers and using telltale marks on heroin packages and pills to trace them back to dealers. And like their colleagues in Philadelphia and Ohio, they are racing to issue warnings about deadly strains of drugs when bodies fall, the way epidemiologists take on Zika.
The police in Arlington, Massachusetts, intervene with vulnerable users. Officials in Everett, Washington, have sued a pharmaceutical firm that they say created a black market for addicts. Seattle’s officers give low-level drug and prostitution suspects a choice: treatment instead of arrest and jail.
Opioids are cutting through the country, claiming increasing deaths and, in some cities, wrecking more lives than traffic fatalities and murders combined. Police leaders are weary of the scenes: 911 calls; bodies with needles in their arms; drugs called “fire” strewn about. They are assigning themselves a big role in reversing the problems. They are working with public health officials, and carrying more antidote for heroin and its synthetic cousin fentanyl.
Few see policing, by itself, as the answer to such a complex social problem, certainly not through enforcement alone. The law enforcement approach to the crack-cocaine scourge of the late 1980s filled jails and prisons, expanded government and did little to address the social issues driving that addiction crisis.
“The police can play a critical role in a very broadly based social and medical response,” said Samuel Walker, an emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha. “So if people think we are going to arrest our way out of the opioid crisis, they’re wrong.”
Governors like Andrew M. Cuomo of New York and Chris Christie of New Jersey, both former prosecutors, have adopted a notably compassionate tone in framing the crisis. In 2014, Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont used 34 minutes of his state-of-the-state speech to urge treatment and support for addicts. As a candidate, President Donald Trump vowed to solve the U.S. drug crisis, a pledge that resonated in impoverished, rural areas that have been ravaged in recent years by opioids.
Labeling it a health epidemic, not a war on drugs, marks a stark contrast with the criminal justice system’s approach to the crack-cocaine plague, which was met by mass arrests in mostly black and Hispanic communities.
Now, policing leaders claim to have learned from the past. But they also know how violent crime can flow from illegal drugs the way Anthony Riccio, a chief in the Chicago Police Department, says is happening in his city. A big fear among police chiefs is that increased demand for low-cost, high-potency opioids will lead to more shootings, and murders, as prices drop and drug traffickers organize.
In Mexico, where almost all of the heroin entering the United States is grown and cultivated, violence surrounding the drug trade is “horrific,” said Chuck Rosenberg, who runs the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But U.S. cities are not immune.
“In almost all of our major seizures and arrests, we’re encountering weapons,” Rosenberg said. “And there’s only one reason to have those around.”
Increasingly, the police find themselves scrambling from call to call for reports of seemingly lifeless bodies. Death counts are rising. Nearly 1,400 people died of drug overdoses in New York City last year, the highest ever and up from 937 the previous year. In Philadelphia, the tally was 906. Nationally, there were 52,000 overdose deaths in 2015, Rosenberg said. And last year, the drug overdose death count likely exceeded 59,000, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times.
Despite the daily toll, no single loss has seemed to galvanize collective concern or outrage, and some fear that a kind of compassion fatigue is setting in.
“Where is the Len Bias moment?” asked Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, referring to the college basketball star’s cocaine-overdose death in 1986, considered a starting point for a so-called national war on drugs.
“We’ve been at this for, now, four or five years, and the overdose numbers continue to go up,” he added. “What’s going to be the defining moment to move this in a different direction?”
To that end, Wexler brought scores of local law enforcement leaders together last month to confront a battle that J. Scott Thomson, the police chief in Camden, New Jersey, told them “we are still losing.” In an auditorium at 1 Police Plaza in Lower Manhattan, attendees spoke with prosecutors and public health officials of the new tactics and realignments the crisis has wrought.
They discussed the “good Samaritan” laws that grant overdose victims seeking medical help immunity from prosecution, and how sheriffs can get help for addicted inmates. But each idea seemed a friction point: How to tell a midlevel dealer from a user needing help? How to tie a specific drug to a death to bring a murder charge? How to choke off supply routes that begin beyond their borders? How to use more discretion on nonviolent drug violators when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is ordering the harshest possible charges in federal drug cases.
It is a complex crisis, with roots in years of overprescription and abuse of opioid pills, which hooked people around the nation, Rosenberg said. “Roughly four out of five new heroin users start out on prescription medication,” he said.
On the street, heroin can be one-fifth the price of opioid pills like hydrocodone and oxycodone. It is also a more plentiful substitute, Rosenberg said, and can be far more potent, particularly with the emergence of strains mixed with fentanyl and carfentanyl.
In New York City, Robert K. Boyce, the chief of detectives, saw overdose deaths hitting record highs in areas across the city. This as homicides dropped to 335 last year and traffic fatalities to 220. He created new teams of homicide and narcotics detectives to focus on how sales — usually of $10 bags or $100 bundles — occur via digital links, and “not on the street,” and added 84 investigators to the effort.
On the streets, 17,000 of the city’s 23,000 patrol officers have been trained in the use of naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. And when people do die, patrol officers “freeze the scene like it’s a homicide case,” he said.
“Everything is data-driven,” the chief said. “Their last phone number is usually their provider. So now you see what else pops off that number. Now you have a nexus.”
There is no expectation of privacy for a dead person, so a warrant is not necessary, though the police often seek cooperation form relatives in seeking passwords. The investigators move quickly, even before a cause of death is officially determined. Details from one case can tie it to others.
In Vermont, a constant flow of illegal drugs arrives in cars driven from New York, del Pozo and his investigators said. Couriers hide drugs in body cavities and alter their routes, coming up Interstate 91 or the New York State Thruway, veering east at Fort Ann, New York, and into Vermont’s southern region.
Burlington, 50 miles from Canada, is often their last stop. There, the drug couriers find hosts who help distribute drugs: pills, bulk heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl.
Recently, Lt. Michael Warren steered a police car along the tree-lined streets of the city’s Old North End, tracing a path of wreckage.
Here, on Ward Street, two brothers overdosed last June in chairs on their front porch. There, on Hyde Street, a genetics major at the University of Vermont was discovered dead. A sign for a corner store, at North and Rose streets, marks the spot of a drive-by shooting over drugs two summers ago. A block away, at North and LaFountain streets, an open-air drug bazaar once reigned.
“It’s all around,” Warren said as a man who he said had overdosed several times bicycled by.
But the area has changed since the police started regular foot patrols, put 140-watt LED bulbs in the streetlights and encouraged merchants to do the same. Now drugs are not as visible, said Doug Olsaver, who has worked for 20 years as a manager at the Shopping Bag, a store at LaFountain and North streets.
“An officer told me that his opinion of drug dealers were that they were like cockroaches,” Olsaver said. “They hate light.”
Earlier that day, del Pozo took a seat with Jackie Corbally — whose title with the Burlington Police Department is opiate policy coordinator, but he calls her the drug czar — at a U-shaped set of tables at the Police Headquarters in the neighboring town of Winooski. The meeting, called SubStat, began convening regularly four months ago with the goal of tracking dozens of vulnerable users who have either been arrested or overdosed. It is based on New York’s computerized crime-fighting system, CompStat, but broader, with those in corrections and parole, the prosecutor’s office and public health in on the talks with local police leaders.
“It’s all about shifting from addiction as a crime to addiction as a disease,” said Jane Helmstetter of the state’s human services agency, who was at the meeting.
One Burlington man, with a longtime addiction and a record of arrests, was struggling to believe the police could help him, he said, even after an officer revived him in April, after his second of three overdoses in 10 days. The officer followed him to a hospital emergency room and told him, “If you need help, we'll drive you to treatment right now.”
Soon, the man met Corbally, and found himself face to face with del Pozo, an unlikely ally. They helped get him into rehabilitation. The encounter was surprising, said the man and his mother, who have tried to keep their ordeal private and spoke on the condition that their names not be published.
“He wasn’t just treated as a drug addict and someone that wasn’t worthy of help,” his mother said. “Here you have a police chief sitting in the same room with a drug addict that knowingly uses illegal substances and he’s not going to handcuff him? It was unusual.”