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Using Opioid Settlement Cash for Police Gear Like Squad Cars and Scanners Sparks Debate
A photo of the lights on top of a police squad car on a tree-lined street.
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Payback: Tracking Opioid Cash

Using Opioid Settlement Cash for Police Gear Like Squad Cars and Scanners Sparks Debate

Policing expenses mount quickly: $25,000 for a law enforcement in Colorado; $18,000 for in Southington, Connecticut; $2,900 for surveillance cameras and to train officers and canines in New Lexington, Ohio. And in other communities around the country, hundreds of thousands for vehicles, body scanners, and other equipment.

In these cases and many others, state and local governments are turning to a new means to pay those bills: opioid settlement cash.

This money 鈥 totaling more than 鈥 comes from national settlements with more than a dozen companies that made, sold, or distributed opioid painkillers, including Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, and Walmart, which were accused of fueling the epidemic that addicted and killed millions.

Directing the funds to police has triggered difficult questions about what the money was meant for and whether such spending truly helps save lives.

Terms vary slightly across settlements, but, in most cases, state and local governments must spend at least 85% of the cash on 鈥渙pioid remediation.鈥

Paving roads or building schools is out of the question. But if a new cruiser helps officers reach the scene of an overdose, does that count?

Answers are being fleshed out in real time.

The money shouldn’t be spent on 鈥渢hings that have never really made a difference,鈥 like arresting low-level drug dealers or throwing people in jail when they need treatment, said , who served as a police officer for 23 years and is currently an assistant professor at Brown University researching policing and public health. At the same time, 鈥測ou can鈥檛 just cut the police out of it. Nor would you want to.鈥

A photo of a man standing for a photo indoors by bookshelves.
Brandon del Pozo was a police officer for 23 years before becoming an assistant professor at Brown University, where he researches policing and public health. When it comes to opioid settlement funds, he says, 鈥測ou can鈥檛 just cut the police out of it. Nor would you want to.鈥 (Zane del Pozo)
Patrick Patterson is vice chair of Michigan鈥檚 Opioid Advisory Commission and executive director of Blue Water Recovery & Outreach Center. He says opioid settlement funds should be spent in a balanced manner, including for services inside jails and those in the community. (Choze Powell)

Many communities are finding it difficult to thread that needle. With fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, flooding the streets and dying of overdoses each year, some people argue that efforts to crack down on drug trafficking warrant law enforcement spending. Others say their war on drugs failed and it鈥檚 time to emphasize treatment and social services. Then there are local officials who recognize the limits of what police and jails can do to stop addiction but see them as the only services in town.

What鈥檚 clear is that each decision 鈥 whether to fund a treatment facility or buy a squad car 鈥 is a trade-off. The settlements will deliver billions of dollars, but that windfall is dwarfed by the toll of the epidemic. So increasing funding for one approach means shortchanging another.

鈥淲e need to have a balance when it comes to spending opioid settlement funds,鈥 said , vice chair of Michigan鈥檚 Opioid Advisory Commission, who is in recovery from opioid addiction. If a county funds a recovery coach inside the jail, but no recovery services in the community, then 鈥渨here is that recovery coach going to take people upon release?鈥 he asked.

Jail Technology Upgrades?

In Michigan, the debate over where to spend the money centers on body scanners for jails.

Email records obtained by KFF 国产精品视频 News show at least half a dozen sheriff departments discussed buying them with opioid settlement funds.

Kalamazoo County : an Intercept body scanner marketed as a 鈥渘ext-generation鈥 screening tool to help jails detect contraband someone might smuggle under clothing or inside their bodies. It takes a full-body X-ray in 3.8 seconds, the . The price tag is close to $200,000.

Jail administrator and police Capt. Logan Bishop said they bought it because in 2016 a 26-year-old man died inside the jail after drug-filled balloons he鈥檇 hidden inside his body ruptured. And last year, staffers saved a man who was overdosing on opioids he鈥檇 smuggled in. In both cases, officers hadn鈥檛 found the drugs, but the scanner might have identified them, Bishop said.

鈥淭he ultimate goal is to save lives,鈥 he added.

St. Clair County also approved the purchase of a scanner with settlement dollars. Jail administrator Tracy DeCaussin said six people overdosed inside the jail within the past year. Though they survived, the scanner would enhance 鈥渢he safety and security of our facility.鈥

But at least three other counties came to a different decision.

鈥淥ur county attorney read over parameters of the settlement鈥檚 allowable expenses, and his opinion was that it would not qualify,鈥 said Sheriff Kyle Rosa of Benzie County. 鈥淪o we had to hit the brakes鈥 on the scanner.

Macomb and Manistee counties used alternative funds to buy the devices.

Scanners are a reasonable purchase from a county鈥檚 general funds, said , who worked at a Detroit jail for 29 years and now helps jails develop addiction treatment programs as part of Wayne State University鈥檚 Center for Behavioral 国产精品视频 and Justice.

After all, technology upgrades are 鈥減art and parcel of running a jail,鈥 he said. But they shouldn鈥檛 be bought with opioid dollars because body scanners do 鈥渁bsolutely nothing to address substance use issues in jail other than potentially finding substances,鈥 he said.

Many experts across the criminal justice and addiction treatment fields agree that settlement funds would be better spent increasing access to medications for opioid use disorder, which have been shown to and , but are frequently .

Who Is on the Front Lines?

In August, more than 200 researchers and clinicians delivered a to government officials in charge of opioid settlement funds.

鈥淢ore policing is not the answer to the overdose crisis,鈥 they wrote.

In fact, years of research suggests law enforcement and criminal justice initiatives have exacerbated the problem, they said. When officers , they often . Fear of arrest can in overdose emergencies. And even if police are accompanied by mental health professionals, people can be with them and connect to treatment.

A study published this year linked seizures of opioids in the areas surrounding those seizures, as people turned to new dealers and unfamiliar drug supplies.

鈥淧olice activity is actually causing the very harms that police activity is supposed to be stemming,鈥 said Jennifer Carroll, an author of that study and an addiction policy researcher who signed the call to action.

A photo of a woman standing for a photo by a fence outdoors.
Jennifer Carroll, an addiction policy researcher, joined more than 200 scientists and clinicians in delivering a call to action to government officials in charge of opioid settlement funds. 鈥淢ore policing is not the answer to the overdose crisis,鈥 they wrote.(Nathaniel Gaertner)

Officers are meant to enforce laws, not deliver public health interventions, she said. 鈥淭he best thing that police can do is recognize that this is not their lane,鈥 she added.

But if not police, who will fill that lane?

, chair of the board of commissioners in Bibb County, Alabama, said there are no specialized mental health treatment options nearby. When residents need care, they must drive 50 minutes to Birmingham. If they鈥檙e suicidal or in severe withdrawal, someone from the sheriff鈥檚 office will drive them.

So Stabler and other commissioners voted to spend about $91,000 of settlement funds on two Chevy pickups for the sheriff鈥檚 office.

鈥淲e鈥檙e going to have to have a dependable truck to do that,鈥 he said.

Commissioners also approved $26,000 to outfit two new patrol vehicles with lights, sirens, and radios, and $5,500 to purchase roadside cameras that scan passing vehicles and flag wanted license plates.

Stabler said these investments support the county agencies that most directly deal with addiction-related issues: 鈥淚 think we鈥檙e using it the right way. I really do.鈥

, a retired captain of the Franklin County, Ohio, sheriff鈥檚 office, agrees.

鈥淧eople need to look beyond, 鈥極h, it鈥檚 just a vest or it鈥檚 just a squad car,鈥 because those tools could impact and reduce drugs in their communities,鈥 said Bain, who has more than 25 years of drug investigation experience. 鈥淭hat cruiser could very well stop the next guy with five kilos of cocaine,鈥 and a vest 鈥渃ould save an officer鈥檚 life on the next drug raid.鈥

That鈥檚 not to say those tools are the solution, he added. They need to be paired with equally important education and prevention efforts, he said.

A photo of a man giving a presentation in front of a seated crowd indoors.
Shawn Bain, a retired captain from the Franklin County, Ohio, sheriff鈥檚 office with more than 25 years of drug investigation experience, now educates other law enforcement agencies, parents, and employers about addiction-related topics. (Mike Powell)
A photo of a doctor speaking on the phone while using her laptop. She is sitting on the floor.
Elyse Stevens, a primary care doctor who specializes in addiction, sits in a closet at a shelter, where she delivers care. She鈥檚 on the phone with a pharmacy, while simultaneously printing out papers for a patient. (Aquil Bey)

However, many advocates say the balance is off. Law enforcement has been well funded for years, while prevention and treatment efforts lag. As a result, law enforcement has become the de facto front line, even if they鈥檙e not well suited to it.

鈥淚f that鈥檚 the front lines, we鈥檝e got to move the line,鈥 said , a primary care doctor at University Medical Center New Orleans, who specializes in addiction. 鈥淏y the time you鈥檙e putting someone in jail, you鈥檝e missed 10,000 opportunities to help them.鈥

Stevens treats about 20 patients with substance use disorder daily and has appointments booked out two months. She skips lunch and takes patient calls after hours to meet the demand.

鈥淭he answer is treatment,鈥 she said. 鈥淚f we could just focus on treating the patient, I promise you all of this would disappear.鈥

Sheriffs to Be Paid Millions

In Louisiana, where Stevens works, 80% of settlement dollars are flowing to parish governments and 20% to sheriffs鈥 departments.

Over the lifetime of the settlements, sheriffs鈥 offices in the state will receive more than $65 million 鈥 the largest direct allocation to law enforcement nationwide.

And they do not have to account for how they spend it.

While parish governments must submit detailed annual expense reports to a , the state鈥檚 exempts sheriffs.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who authored that agreement and has since been elected governor, did not respond to questions about the discrepancy.

, president of St. Martin parish and a member of the Louisiana Opioid Abatement Task Force, said he鈥檚 confident sheriffs will spend the money appropriately.

鈥淚 don鈥檛 see a whole lot of sheriffs trying to buy bullets and bulletproof vests,鈥 he said. Most are 鈥渆ager to find programs that will keep people with substance abuse problems out of their jails.鈥

Sheriffs are still subject to standard state audits and public records requests, he said.

But there鈥檚 room for skepticism.

鈥淲hy would you just give them a check鈥 with nothing 鈥渢o make sure it鈥檚 being used properly?鈥 said , a community activist and former military police officer who is in recovery from addiction. 鈥淭hose are the kinds of things that mess with people鈥檚 trust.鈥

Still, Myles knows she has to work with law enforcement to address the crisis. She鈥檚 starting a pilot program with Baton Rouge police, in which trained people with personal addiction experience will accompany officers on overdose calls to connect people to treatment. East Baton Rouge Parish is funding the pilot of settlement funds.

鈥淲e have to learn how to coexist together in this space,鈥 Myles said. 鈥淏ut everybody has to know their role.鈥

A photo of a woman standing outside for a photo and smiling. She's holding a sign with text that is only partially visible. The top of the sign says, "Addiction"
Tonja Myles, in recovery from addiction, is a community activist and former military police officer. Her organization, Set Free Indeed Ministry, has partnered with law enforcement to address substance use and mental health issues for nearly two decades.(George Fisher)