Policing and the Opioid Epidemic in the de Blasio Era What is being done and what we hope will follow

     As someone who has been a student for the past fifteen years, I have come to develop an overwhelming admiration towards my educators and the wisdom each of them have provided them. Perhaps the hardest working and most giving teachers are those who have the pleasure of working with special education students. Take, for example, Matthew Azimi, a special education teacher in the Bronx. Immediately I am compelled to have nothing but respect for this man. The patience and strength one needs to fulfill such a duty is unattainable for most. Matthew had a respectable job by anyone’s standards; he even had a wife of 10 years and three children, the youngest born only last month. He seemed to have had it together, but his family’s life fell apart when they heard Matthew had been found dead in the faculty bathroom with a syringe sticking out of his arm.  

     Matthew’s life is just one of the over 1000 claimed by the NYC opioid epidemic in 2017. How this epidemic began is widely debated by law enforcement and public health officials throughout the city and the country. Many blame pharmaceutical companies for creating a demand for opioids as well as supplying said opioids. When these prescription drugs become unavailable, addicts often turn to heroin and fentanyl for a quick fix. Other culprits include economic and social disruption. Widespread drug abuse is a multifaceted problem making it harder to target and eradicate. As a result, New York City and the de Blasio administration has taken a multifaceted approach to deal with symptoms and causes of the opioid epidemic. These efforts include naloxone kits that can save lives in case of an overdose by stopping the effects of opioids, the Relay program that hires ex-addicts to provide current addicts with rehabilitation resources and increased budgets for the NYPD.  There is no question that the de Blasio administration intends to better the epidemic with a combination of the aforementioned strategies, but the efficacy of the NYPD’s role is questioned often.

     HealingNYC, a de Blasio program that aims to reduce the NYC overdose rates by 35% over the next 5 years. The city hopes to accomplish this through a $38 million investment. The NYPD has received the largest chunk of this sum: $15 million. With this money, they have been targeting the drug supply itself by hiring 84 detectives to the Overdose Response Squads. The squads are sent to the scene of an overdose (fatal or not) in order to gather evidence leading the victim’s supplier including distinguishing marks on the bag of drugs itself and cell phone records which usually reveal the dealer’s phone number which is then entered in a database. By doing this, the NYPD aim to cut the heroin supply at its source.

     This large allocation of funds has led to some criticism by people like Julia DeWalt from Boom!Health, a Bronx based outreach center. She says that the approach to the epidemic is incomplete, implying that more funds should be allocated toward public health causes such as her own: Boom!Health supports those who are addicted to opioids through housing and needle exchange. Another notable critic is Paul Massey, former NYC mayoral candidate. He claims that the investment in the NYPD is a waste of money and that funds should go towards naloxone kits and preventative treatments should be paramount in the battle against opioid addiction. What they fail to consider is that in 2016, prior to the HealingNYC initiative, the city focused its efforts solely on public health and it was proven unsuccessful. The de Blasio administration hoped that increasing the availability of naloxone kits would decrease the amount of overdose deaths in NYC. Unfortunately, overdose deaths increased from 937 in 2015 to 1374 in 2016. This failure led the administration to refocus its efforts creating a more holistic program: HealingNYC.

     The long term success of HealingNYC remains to be seen, but so far, it seems to be working. No data has been published on late 2017 to present day, but NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has reported that the overdose rate has plateaued. It is important to keep in mind that the  program is meant to make a significant difference after 5 years, not 1. Those who are skeptical of the NYPD’s methods, like DeWalt and Massey, fail to see that this program can only work over a long period of time. Administering naloxone is instantaneous, but tracking down suppliers and gathering evidence to hold them accountable takes time.

     Even though policing has been a controversial choice in the efforts against opioid use in the city, all New Yorkers can agree that this is an issue that needs to be dealt with quickly and carefully. As a city, we should be eager to explore every possibility and remember that change does not take place overnight. No matter who is in office, patience is the one tool that will win the fight against the opioid epidemic.https://goo.gl/images/rZnKgV