Chicago police officers in four South and West Side districts with the greatest number of opioid overdoses will soon be carrying the antidote naloxone, and will get two hours of training in how to administer it.
The Calumet, Gresham, Ogden and Harrison districts and the Chicago Police Department’s Narcotics Unit will kick off a $200,000 experiment bankrolled by fines against drunken drivers.
Firefighters have already been carrying Narcan, the brand name for the drug naloxone, since 2016 and have treated thousands of people with it. Now the city will evaluate the effectiveness of cops having the drug on hand in those four pilot districts.
“Often, police officers are first on the scene. When it comes to an overdose, every second counts,” said deputy chief of staff Walter Katz, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s point man on public safety issues.
Opioid abuse in Chicago and the collar counties has become an epidemic over the past decade. Last year, 1,085 people died of opioid overdoses in Cook County —about the same as in 2016, according to preliminary figures from the medical examiner’s office.
In 2015, 647 deaths in Cook County were attributed to opioid poisoning, but the reason that figure is far lower than each of the past two years is that the medical examiner’s office didn’t routinely test for the drug fentanyl until June 2015. Fentanyl is a far more powerful opioid than heroin.
The Chicago Fire Department’s 75 ambulances, 73 advanced life-support fire trucks and 150 first-line vehicles, as well as all uniformed personnel, were equipped with Narcan in October 2016. Last year, the fire department treated 7,527 opioid overdose victims with the drug.
“The initial effort for the city was to make sure that everyone in fire had it. Now a significant effort is being made to make sure that network of having Narcan distributed throughout the city is even deeper,” Katz said.
It follows the 2016 recommendations of the Chicago-Cook County Task Force on Heroin jointly convened by Ald. Edward Burke (14th) and county Commissioner Richard Boykin.
Other police agencies, such as the Illinois State Police, have been equipped with naloxone for years. The state police, who started administering the drug three years ago, saved a woman in a restroom last spring in the State of Illinois building. Still, Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Julia Morita said the Chicago Police Department “hasn’t been late to the game.”
“We really focused in on EMS early on. But we’re now engaging very actively in a very targeted and appropriate way with the police.”
She stressed that Narcan is “not the only solution” to the opioid epidemic.
“We have to have medications to treat it. We have to de-stigmatize substance abuse disorder so people aren’t afraid to get access to therapy. We have to have reversal agents available. And we have to do the work to connect individuals to treatment, so they can break the habit,” Morita said.
In 2016, meantime, the Chicago Police Department launched an innovative program on the West Side that diverted arrested addicts into treatment instead of jail.
Police analysts reviewed the 2016 fire department responses to opioid overdoses on the West Side —cases in which paramedics administered naloxone. The police focused their program on open-air drug markets, which are considered the main sources of violence there.
In December, the police department said it would expand that program, with police Supt. Eddie Johnson saying, “we can’t arrest our way to a safer Chicago.”