By LA County Sheriff Commander Judy Gerhardt,
I’ve been a proud member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for almost 37 years. I’ve witnessed a lot during those decades: Acts of heroism by deputies willing to risk their lives for perfect strangers, and tragedies often too horrific to describe.
See something, say something. That’s our motto to ensure safety and security. It’s necessary because it takes all of us, the community as a whole, working together to address the problems that plague our society. We want each other to notice things that are amiss and bring them to the attention of authorities so the problem can be effectively managed. So, it’s time to say something.
In recent years, I’ve learned a lot about opioid addiction; more than I ever intended to know. It’s an epidemic facing our communities and it’s time we start talking about it. The stigma attached to addiction causes people to hide and deny that a problem exists, which limits our ability to combat it effectively. We need to talk about it. We need to talk with each other, with parents, children, teachers, legislators, and anyone else who will listen. We need to recognize that addiction is not a character flaw; it is an illness. The effects are devastating.
A few years ago, a close friend of mine discovered that her then-teenage son was addicted to heroin. I listened to the pain and agony it caused her and her family and watched as they struggled to find a treatment program that would change the course of his life. I remember driving around with her in the middle of the night, trying to simply find her son. She often described the sleepless nights, jumping every time the phone rang, hoping and praying it wasn’t awful news. Her relief came when she found out he was arrested. At least he wasn’t dead. He had a roof over his head and a meal in his belly. As the years passed, this turmoil became her life.
Then, last year, I received a late night call from my daughter. She was crying hysterically. She learned that a dear friend of hers had overdosed on opioids and passed away. Her devastation, and shear pain, tore through me. She flew across the country to speak at his funeral. She felt it was the least she could do to comfort his grieving parents. It changed her world, and in turn, changed mine. This young man, 25 years old, was a kind, smart, ambitious gentleman who suffered from addiction. He had been in recovery but for reasons we will never know, relapsed, and tragically lost his life.
On December 28, 2016, tragedy struck my own family when my 23-year-old nephew passed away from an opioid overdose. He struggled with addiction since he was 15 years old but in recent years had turned his life around. He was chasing his dreams and planned on using his own experience to help others. After a car accident, he was given opioids and relapsed. He died in the bathroom of his mother’s home all alone as a result of an opioid overdose.
Opioid addiction, and the tragedy that accompanies it was all around me. I had to do something.
The Center for Disease Control recently released a report that stated opiate overdose deaths were at an epidemic level in the United States. In 2015, there were approximately 53,000 drug overdose deaths across the nation. It has been reported this number has increased by as much as 20% in the past year, although confirmed statistics are difficult to come by. Of those, 21,000 involved opiate painkillers and 12,000 were attributed to heroin. That equates to more than 160 people a day passing away as the result of a drug overdose. More people die every year from overdose than car accidents and the problem is only getting worse. Recently, we are learning of law enforcement officers across the country overdosing on opioids after being exposed in the normal course of their duties.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell recognized the devastating impact the epidemic was having on the east coast. He knew it was probably coming our way and we were not simply going to arrest our way out of the problem. Law enforcement is often the first to arrive on the scene of a medical emergency which presents us with a unique opportunity to have an impact in mitigating the effects of an opioid overdose. Until recently, officers have been restricted in the level of care they could provide an individual suffering from an overdose, but times have changed. Naloxone Hydrochloride (Narcan), a life-saving intervention medication, is now available over the counter to the public as well as first responders.
Over the past several months, we gathered information, worked with other county departments, developed policy and training, and took the first small step in what we hope is an impactful journey to curb the tide of opioid addiction. We managed to put in place a program that will equip all 3,000 field deputies in LA County with Narcan, and give them the ability to save the life of a person suffering from opioid overdose.
Because naloxone is a medication, it was necessary to ensure proper protocols were met. We worked with the County Chief Health Officer to obtain a “standing order” prescription necessary for the department to purchase naloxone from the vendor. We coordinated with the Office of County Emergency Medical Services for oversight of policy, training, and reporting procedures, and with County Counsel to minimize liability. We created our own in-house training video, offered via a web-based portal, and credentialed our first aid instructors to certify the training and practical application of the administration of the drug by field deputies. Using a web-based training and a “train the trainer” format allows the Department to train hundreds of personnel a week without taking them away from their field work for extended periods of time.
The LASD purchased 1,300 doses of Narcan in June 2017 for deployment in a pilot program in areas identified as high risk. On June 7, 2017, we received notification that the Department would be receiving an additional 5,000 doses from a State Department of Public Health grant. This will allow the Department to equip each field deputy with this life-saving drug in the upcoming months.
Deputies have been receptive and appreciative of the program. They recognize we are in the life-saving business and they are ready to do what it takes to curb the number of tragedies associated with this epidemic.
Open communication remains a key to success. Next steps include collaborating with our partners in the County family to address prevention, education, follow-up, and treatment for those suffering from addiction. The best prevention practice is education so that people stop before they start. Investing in education and awareness is a critical component to reducing abuse. Teaching friends and families the signs and symptoms of opioid abuse is important and we want to work within our communities to ensure this information is shared. Treatment is imperative and has to be readily available when someone makes the decision to seek help. Having someone available 24/7 is critical. Los Angeles County is working to expand treatment centers so they are available whenever patients are ready for help.
We want to instill hope. We want people to know that addiction can be treated effectively and recovery is possible. We want to ensure people suffering from this illness know they can get help, recover, and go on to live productive lives. We want families and friends to find a support system where they can turn when times are difficult.
Narcan may not cure the addiction epidemic in this country, but the use of Narcan to reverse an overdose gives the patient another opportunity to make a choice. We hope they choose treatment. Without Narcan, there is no choice, just the tragic aftermath of an unnecessary death.
Let’s come out of the shadows and talk about this problem openly and honestly. And then let’s do something about it together.
Judy Gerhardt is a Commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department.