The number of opioid overdoses reported to Frederick County law enforcement agencies were down so far in 2017 compared to last year, but police are not getting complacent.
“This is not something that is going to go away, you’re going to see peaks and valleys,” said Lt. Eric Byers, who recently took over command of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office’s Vice and Narcotics Section. “If the numbers are down, that’s great, we take every little victory we can, but this is an ongoing problem.”
Between Jan. 1 and May 31 of 2017, police and deputies in Frederick County responded to 143 opioid-related overdoses, 19 of which were fatal, according to data collected and compiled by the sheriff’s office. These numbers, while disturbing, do not put the county on pace to exceed the record high overdoses and fatalities reported last year, when county police agencies responded to a total of 409 opioid overdoses and reported 54 deaths.
Opioid-related overdose totals increased steadily every year from 21 in 2012 — the earliest year the sheriff’s office provided data for — to 140 overdoses in 2015, before jumping sharply last year.
The 19 fatalities reported so far this year already matched the year-end total fatalities reported in 2013 and 2015, and put the county on pace to surpass the previous record high 32 deaths in 2014.
The trend in overdoses was reflected in the number of instances where first responders have administered naloxone, a drug that can counteract the effects of an opioid-induced overdose.
Between Jan. 1, 2017 and Tuesday, Frederick County Division of Fire and Rescue personnel administered 154 doses of Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, according to Battalion Chief Michael Cole, who oversees the division’s emergency medical services branch.
During the same time period last year, EMS and fire personnel administered naloxone approximately 204 times, according to data previously published by The Frederick News-Post. A total of 423 doses were administered during 2016 and 284 doses were administered in 2015, according to Cole’s data.
Law enforcement agencies also reported their own Narcan save rates. Frederick police officers used 20 doses of the drug in the first half of 2017, reporting a total of 15 saves with no fatalities, according to Lt. Clark Pennington, commander of the department’s Criminal Investigation Division. The sheriff’s office reported 24 Narcan saves by its deputies in the same time period, but three people who were administered the drug by deputies in that time period died despite the deputies’ efforts, according to data compiled by Maj. Tim Clarke, an agency spokesman.
Every police agency in the county equips its patrol officers — and the majority of sworn personnel — with Narcan kits, and efforts at combatting the ongoing opioid epidemic — Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s office declared a state of emergency across the state in March — have continued since the first officers began receiving Narcan training in Frederick County in 2014.
“We’ve had about a 28 or 29 percent reduction this year in overdoses compared to last year’s timelines, and we think that’s a direct result of the collaboration between us, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and the Frederick County Health Department,” Pennington said of this year’s numbers.
Specifically in Frederick, the department obtained grant funding in 2016 that led to two new staff positions this year; a heroin coordinator employed by Frederick police and a peer recovery coach who is technically a county health department official but works closely with the department, Pennington said.
While the recovery coach is focused on connecting addicts identified by police with counseling and recovery services, the heroin coordinator works directly with the Frederick police and the sheriff’s office’s drug units to identify trends in the overdose data collected by county agencies, Pennington said.
Ultimately, the goal is to quickly identify individuals who are at risk for overdosing based on previous calls for service and connect them with other county services to cut down on recidivism rates, Pennington said.
“It all goes back to our three-pronged approach of enforcement, education and prevention, and we’re trying to include all of those prongs in our crimefighting strategy and also in our approach to this health crisis,” the lieutenant said.
County police agencies realized early on that enforcement was only part of the solution to the state’s opioid crisis, but the Good Samaritan Law that went into effect in October of 2015 put specific restrictions on police officers in terms of their ability to make arrests after responding to overdose calls and the like.
The idea behind the law was to encourage addicts and their friends and loved ones to call 911 during an emergency, an approach that is embraced by county law enforcement, Byers said.
“When we stop these people most of them have been in rehab, maybe have a couple of months in rehab but are back in it again, so a lot of these people have tried to get help, they want to get better,” Byers said. “You can’t just go out there and yell and scream at them and say ‘Stop doing this!’ because this stuff is so addictive, you have to treat them with the utmost respect.”
Frederick County’s location also sets it apart from other regions and changes local law enforcement’s approach to the problem. Because the county is so close to Baltimore, a major distribution zone for heroin and opioids, many of the dealers police see in Frederick County are addicts who are selling to support their own drug use, Byers said.
“You see a lot of groups of people who, everyone gets in a car, they combine their money and bring back as much as they can and if there’s any left over, they may sell it to support their habit,” Byers said.
That said, arrests of large-scale dealers still take place in and around Frederick, and each agency is taking its own steps toward ramping up enforcement.
For example, the Brunswick Police Department recently designated its own drug investigator, a first for the smaller department, said Chief Milt Frech.
“He has been able to execute about 12 search warrants that either he has personally applied for or obtained or worked with through our partners,” Frech said, explaining how the detective often assists and receives assistance in return from Frederick police and the sheriff’s office’s drug units as part of a countywide drug task force.
“I think it’s been paying some huge dividends,” Frech said. “For example, a normal patrol guy wouldn’t be able to spend as much time setting up on a house and working undercover.”
Regardless of the numbers, be it overdoses, deaths or arrests, Frederick County law enforcement agencies are committed to contributing as much as possible to an eventual solution to the state’s heroin and opioid crisis, Frech said, echoing statements made by Byers and Pennington.
“The number of overdoses or deaths being a little bit down doesn’t mean anything to a parent who loses their child,” the chief said. “Even one death is too many.”