<p>Kaitlyn Boecker 402-670-3773</p>
Update: After learning of conflicting reports regarding a recent overdose incident near Penn North station, we are issuing an update to our May 24 release. Several witnesses to the incident reported that the overdose victim died as a result of his overdose. However, after publication, MTA contacted us to state that the overdose victim ultimately recovered after medical transport to a hospital. We are currently working to obtain documentation to confirm that the victim they are referencing is the same person featured in our release, which remains unclear at this time.
That said, the incident featured in our release — in which a bystander was prevented from administering naloxone to an overdose victim — remains deeply troubling. Law enforcement officers should never prevent concerned individuals from acting to reverse an overdose. Maryland law (§5-603) offers clear protections for individuals providing lifesaving aid in a medical emergency, and individuals should never be discouraged from taking quick action to reverse an overdose.
Recently a new Baltimore Police Department (BPD) policy to treat overdose scenes as crime scenes was widely publicized. The new policy discourages people from calling for medical assistance for an overdose, puts overdose victims at increased risk, and further places vulnerable individuals’ health and safety at risk, particularly in black and brown and poor communities. The policy change will result in increased, and otherwise preventable, overdose deaths throughout Baltimore.
Though only a few weeks old, the policy has already resulted in confusion on how to respond to overdoses and contributed to the death of a Baltimore man near Penn North metro station last week due to law enforcement interference. Bystanders at the station identified an individual experiencing an overdose and attempted to revive him by administering naloxone, a fast acting opioid-overdose reversal drug, but were prevented from doing so by a Metro Transit Administration (MTA) officer. Multiple witnesses gathered at the scene, demanding that they be allowed to treat the individual, but were prevented from doing so repeatedly by the MTA officer. The man ultimately died.
"When we treat overdoses like crimes, it changes police priorities. Police have to be concerned about contamination of the crime scene, when their first priority should be saving the overdosing person's life," said Thomas Dargan Chairman of Communities United Quality of Life Committee. "This approach only increases the potential for harm and even death among people struggling with opioids. Officers should be carrying and administering naloxone, or at least encouraging trained civilians to do it."
Maryland has been devastated by the opioid overdose epidemic, with 1,089 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2015, almost 400 of which were within Baltimore City. The city’s 2016 figures are even grimmer; in just the first nine months of 2016, 431 individuals died of an overdose, surpassing the number of people who died in all of 2015. The state and city have responded to the crisis with interventions such as the Good Samaritan law, which provides immunity for certain drug-related offenses for people seeking help at the scene of an overdose; as well as making overdose reversal drugs like naloxone easily accessible, and increasing treatment funding. However, many jurisdictions have simultaneously adopted counterproductive criminal justice approaches instead of proven, evidence-based public health interventions while overdose deaths have continued to rise.
Baltimore’s newly announced policy of treating overdoses scenes as crime scenes and overdose deaths as homicides is such a return to drug war policies. Previously, as medical emergencies, overdose calls were left to Emergency Medical Services, but BPD will now deploy a taskforce of detectives out of the homicide unit to investigate both fatal and non-fatal overdose scenes.
“Treating a medical crisis as a crime scene sends a terrible message and is only going to make bystanders scared to call for help during an overdose,” said Dargan. “As a formerly incarcerated citizen I educate our communities about how to stop overdose deaths by administering naloxone and calling 911, but with the new policy I can’t promise them they’ll be protected even with the Good Samaritan law. This policy makes it much more difficult for us to save lives and is going to cause more overdose deaths.”
A coalition of Baltimore community based organizations is strongly opposing BPD’s decision to treat overdoses as crime scenes, and people who use drugs as criminals. Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, BRIDGES Coalition, Communities United, Jews United for Justice, Nurses for Justice Baltimore, Power Inside, and Maryland Community Health Initiatives Inc. are calling on BPD to immediately end this practice. The burgeoning coalition supports drug user rights and a public health approach to drug use, such as interventions like safe consumption spaces in Baltimore.
“Baltimore PD’s decision to treat overdoses as a crime is incredibly disappointing and there’s no doubt it will lead to more deaths. If the city wants to reduce overdoses, Baltimore law enforcement should be dispensing naloxone, educating community members about the Good Samaritan Law, and advocating for expanding law enforcement assisted diversion (LEAD) programs to keep those with minor drug offenses out of the criminal justice system,” said Kaitlyn Boecker, Policy Coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance.
“Further criminalizing drug users will do nothing to build trust with communities that have been devastated by the War on Drugs for decades and continue to fear police interaction. We need to support harm reduction practices that reduce risk of fatal overdose and incarceration, such as creating safe spaces for people who use drugs,” said Rajani Gudlavalleti, community organizer for BRIDGES (Baltimore Resources for Indoor Drug-use Grassroots Education & Safety) Coalition.
"If the findings from the Department of Justice’s investigation and report on the Baltimore Police Department is any indication of how BPD’s practices are carried out, we are concerned that this new policy will increase the criminalization of Black residents," says executive director of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition, Harriet Smith.
"Nurses for Justice Baltimore is appalled by the recent BPD policy put forth to treat overdose scenes as crime scenes. Treating individuals who struggle with substance use as criminals is contradictory to everything we know and believe as nurses. Everyone has the human right to receive care free from judgment. We know that criminalizing people for using drugs only serves to isolate, and in many cases, drives individuals further into their addiction, leading to the epidemic of overdose deaths that we see in our city every day. Criminalizing people for addiction perpetuates racial disparities and is a form of hatred and disrespect that we, will not tolerate. Overdose is a medical crisis that deserves compassionate medical attention no matter what, where, or to whom it happens," said Molly Greenberg, RN and Michaela Lindahl, RN of Nurses for Justice Baltimore.