Officers increase Narcan use in fight against opioid epidemic

Police Department Displays Naloxone kit used by officers responding to drug overdoses.             Photo by Lianne Zana

By Lianne Zana

The Springfield Police Department has equipped all officer vehicles with Naloxone, a potentially life-saving tool to help law enforcement fight the opioid crisis in Western Massachusetts.

The recent installment means 500 cops now have access to a medication that can reverse the deadly effects of a drug overdose. This comes in addition to the Narcan that has been installed throughout the police department’s bureaus, satellite locations, and public safety complex. The department’s nasal Narcan initiative has helped prepare the city’s officers in their response efforts to the epidemic of drug-related emergencies.

The medication is attached to the automated external defibrillator (AED) of every unmarked and undercover car used by the department. In addition to the police department’s use of the medication, Narcan has also been installed in public facilities throughout Western Massachusetts, such as schools and libraries. The goal of this initiative is to help ensure that individuals are prepared to respond to an overdose before medical crews arrive.

The implementation of nasal Narcan in the police department comes on the heels of an upward trend in opioid overdoses in Western Massachusetts and throughout the country. In 2021, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that overdose deaths in the United States surpassed 100,000 for the first time – a 28.5% increase from the same time the previous year. Law enforcement leaders and health experts said Covid-19 restrictions in the early days of the pandemic are thought to have exacerbated the opioid epidemic by limiting the recourses for those struggling with substance abuse.

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse

Springfield officers have administered more than 300 doses of the medication since the nasal Narcan program began. Naloxone works by binding to opioid receptors and reversing or blocking the effects of the drug on the brain, thereby restoring normal breathing.

The Narcan initiative came just one year before the United States topped 100,000 opioid overdose deaths during a 12-month period. In Western Massachusetts, the opioid crisis has been particularly deadly in recent years; in 2021, there were roughly 2,290 opioid-related overdose deaths – an 8.8% increase from 2020. According to the Springfield Police Department, opioid-related overdose deaths in the city almost quadrupled during a seven-year period, increasing from 31 confirmed deaths in 2014 to 119 deaths in 2021.

“When Narcan is in the hands of a first responder, we have the ability to reverse an overdose, to save a life, and to give that person an opportunity to have a better tomorrow,” Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi said.

Cocchi has been in the sheriff’s office for nearly three decades. He received his bachelor’s degree at Western New England University, and his master’s degree at Elms College. Cocchi began as a correctional officer, before being elected the sixteenth sheriff of Hampden County, a position he has held for the past five years.

Cocchi called the issuance of Narcan to police officers and first responders a “game-changer.” But he added that the implementation of the tool was initially controversial because people would ask, “Why would you give someone a dosage of something that’s only going to allow them to go back and use again?”

“The answer is very simple,” Cocchi said. “We’re not God. Our job is to do everything we possibly can within the scope of our abilities and training to save lives, and this is a great tool to save lives.“

Cocchi said that law enforcement workers are learning a great deal about harm-reduction tools that are available for people with substance abuse issues – and that Narcan is “one of the best.”

Law enforcement also credits Narcan spray with the continuity of sobriety. It is not just the act of saving a life, but also the motivation to maintain abstinence from engaging in substance use. That is why the sheriff’s department has partnered up with the Springfield Police Department and co-respondents from the Behavioral Health Network to create a system where law enforcement and other agencies follow-up on individuals who overdosed.

“We’re able to get some of these individuals who have overdosed connected to the right resources for the follow-ups so that when they’re ready, they have the resources available to get the help that they need,” Springfield Police Spokesperson Ryan Walsh said.

Walsh, who has worked for the police department since 2017, previously worked in the news industry for 17 years. He is the first civilian to serve as the department’s media relations specialist.

Walsh explained that the opioid epidemic in Western Massachusetts helps feed local crime and quality of life issues. He said that the individuals who commit criminal acts such as breaking into vehicles and homes, and have substance abuse issues, keep the jobs of drug dealers very lucrative. This tendency typically results in problems related to guns, drugs, and other quality of life issues in Springfield.

“The more people you can help by getting them the resources and the help that they need, the more it helps the entire community all the way around,” Walsh said.

While many celebrate the prospect of a lifesaving tool associated with substance abuse, Narcan has not always been available to those who find themselves in such situations.

Kirk Jonah is the founder of the Jack Jonah Foundation, a 501c3 charity that promotes opioid awareness. The foundation launched after Jonah’s son Jack died of a heroin overdose in 2016. The foundation fosters and encourages drug education among youth. Jonah has spent the last several years speaking at middle schools about drug awareness and opioid use prevention.

Jonah attributes the rise in deadly opioid overdoses to the presence of fentanyl in many of the illicit drugs people are using today.

“With all the additives that are in there now, it’s a one-and-done situation,” he said.

Every year since Jack’s death, the Jack Jonah Foundation has organized a memorial event called “Jack’s Walk,” a 5K walk through Ashley Reservoir in Holyoke, Massachusetts, that raises money to benefit opioid awareness. The fundraiser features a Narcan demonstration from the organization Tapestry Health. At the next 5K, Jonah said he hopes to be able to pass out Narcan to everyone who attends the fundraiser, so that they have access to the lifesaving tool in the event that they need it.

The Narcan demonstration is part of a growing effort to educate young people about the dangers of illicit drugs, and the taboo that is associated with the topic.

“The stigma will be broken down more over time as more people start talking about it,” Jonah said.

The Narcan program was one of Springfield Police Superintendent Cheryl Clapprood’s first public health initiatives when she was named acting commissioner in February of 2019. She said that in addition to saving lives, the use and success stories of Narcan have helped boost the morale at the police department. Clapprood said that although officers are trained as first responders, there was a time when they would be forced to wait for an ambulance to arrive in the event of a drug overdose. Clapprood said that it was frustrating for officers not to be able to perform any lifesaving measures on someone experiencing an overdose.

The police department is working on buying more Narcan and other medical equipment so that the officers can help make an even greater difference in the community with lifesaving tools.

“[The Narcan] gives these individuals a chance to make better decisions, and start the first day of the rest of their lives hopefully in a path of recovery,” Cocchi said.

About Lianne Zana 4 Articles
Lianne Zana is an Emerson College graduate student from Western Massachusetts. Born in Paris, France and raised in Longmeadow, Lianne has more than three years of experience in television news producing at WWLP-22News in Springfield. She attended University of Connecticut for her undergraduate studies, where she pursued a double-major in journalism and communication. Lianne plans to use the skills she's acquired at Emerson and WWLP to continue her work as a news producer in a larger market.