From thermal blankets to First Aid Kits, modern law enforcement officers are equipped with an array of equipment for use in just about any situation imaginable. Many law enforcement agencies across the country are taking on more of a medical first responder role than ever before, requiring additional equipment and training.
Last May, the Tomahawk Police Department took an unprecedented step by equipping its officers with Evzio™ cartridges, which administer the drug Naloxone. If administered within a short time following an opioid overdose, Naloxone can block or reverse the effects of opioid substances and medications such as that of heroin, oxycontin and morphine.
The drug works by blocking the opioid receptors in the brain, hence counteracting life-threatening depression of the central nervous system and respiratory system and allowing an overdose victim to breathe normally in as soon as two minutes from the time of administration.
Nalaxone, which is injected from a cartridge, is also known by its widely publicized brand name “Narcan,” which is ingested via nasal spray.
Although TPD may be the first agency north of Madison to do so, law enforcement agencies acquiring Narcan has become a trend nationwide since as early as 2004, as heroin and other opioid related overdoses reached epidemic levels.
According to Tomahawk Police Chief Al Elvins, his decision to equip officers with the life saving drug came about following an executive training session hosted by the Wisconsin Department of Justice last year in Milwaukee.
“One of the speakers presented and discussed Nalaxone being used in Madison and offered information on grants to acquire the substance,” Elvins said. “I became interested and decided to do some research of my own. As part of that research I learned agencies nationwide are issuing Naloxone to their officers. In fact, the NYPD – which is the largest police agency in the country – issued Naloxone to over 20,000 of its officers in 2014.”
Encouraged, Elvins consulted with a local physician at Sacred Heart Hospital in Tomahawk.
“I wanted to cover my bases so I asked what he knew about the drug as in risks, side effects and so on. He was very candid with me and advised there is of course no drug out there which doesn’t carry potential side effects. But compared to most similar drugs out there, the side effects were minimal. Common known side effects are nausea, vomiting, shaking, sweating and some shortness of breath,” Elvins explained. “But most importantly the drug can save lives. Another risk which I had been told about is the possibility of a subject waking up from an overdose and becoming combative due to taking away their high.”
But in his own words, those are risks Elvins is willing to take, compared to the more dire risk of losing lives.
“In my opinion, if we have the opportunity to save a life as a public safety agency we must seize the opportunity to save a life,” he said. “Who knows what could happen in that case!
“A person may be have an opioid addiction and they came that close to losing their life. But on that one occasion, an officer happened to act and administer Naloxone, saving that person’s life. That could in fact prove to a life changing experience and that person could go on to accomplish great things.”
Elvins also cites the relatively harmless effect of the drug if an opioid overdose or reaction is misdiagnosed in the field.
“If an officer were to administer Naloxone and it turns out the condition was non-opioid related the drug will not impose any harmful effects, other than possibility of minor side effects I mentioned ealier. I have not been aware of any lethal or life threatening instances as a result of a Naloxone injection. In my opinion, the risk of minor side effects is minimal compared to loss of life due to overdose.”
Despite the sweeping trend of law enforcement agencies getting their hands on Naloxone, the concept is far from short on critics.
Some medical practitioners and those involved in emergency medical services have ascertained the drug and its administration should be left in the hands of practitioners such as EMT’s and trained medical staff. Other nearby jurisdictions in central Wisconsin have opted against issuing the drug to their officers for the same reason.
However Elvins insists in favor of using the drug in an effort to save lives, than to stand by and do nothing.
“If we don’t carry this and someone dies, we are liable in that case as a failure to act. If and when the time comes for our officers to administer Naloxone, they will have EMS en route to assist. I would rather take a chance and administer Naloxone to make an effort in saving lives, than to standby and do nothing. Since acquiring Naloxone last May, we have yet to administer it. I feel that’s a testament to the type of officers we have on our department. That tells me they are taking their responsibility to assess and evaluate a situation seriously, rather than just injecting someone without any consideration.
“The assessment and evaluation of the circumstances is a huge part of this,” the fourth-year police administrator adds. “Law enforcement officers are trained to assess and evaluate every situation before they act. If a situation presents itself as a possible opioid overdose, that’s where Naloxone comes in.”
When asked if the city of Tomahawk is facing a heroin problem, Elvins had this to say.
“It’s around, just like it’s around anywhere else. We see it from time to time, but no I wouldn’t say it’s a problem. When I first took over in 2012, we had a considerable heroin problem in the city. But due to department restructuring, we have been able to institute a drug investigator and thanks to his work, we were able to take down a large-scale heroin distributor in the area. That alone has greatly minimized the issue. We have it, we have seen it, but nowhere near the extent we used to.”
On the flip side, Elvins is cognizant of an ongoing issue with opioid prescription drug abuse such as morphine and oxycontin.
“We are still seeing a lot of activity with opioid prescription medication of which Naloxone would also reverse the effects,” he adds.
Elvins cites the department’s ongoing “prescription take-back” initiative as a key component in combating the issue of prescription medication abuse and would like to encourage Tomahawk citizens to take advantage of the initiative by dropping off all unused, expired or unwanted prescription medications at the Tomahawk Police Department during the hours of 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on the weekends. The department takes all forms of medication except aerosols.
“If you see an officer, they can take care of any meds you may have,” Elvins adds.
Currently each Tomahawk officer is equipped with two Evzio™ injector cartridges containing one dose of Naloxone each. Officers are also equipped with a trainer cartridge.
Chief Elvins would like to express the department’s appreciation and gratitude for a local EMT who volunteered their time to train officers in the use of Naloxone as well as the Kaleo Cares Grant Program by Kaleo Pharmaceuticals of Richmond, VA.
“Without their assistance in acquiring a grant, equipping our officers with this life saving drug just would not have been possible,” he said.
While Narcan is carried by both the Merrill and Tomahawk Fire Departments, the Merrill Police Department has not yet equipped its officers.
According to Captain Corey Bennett, the topic has been raised and discussed but the department is still currently in the information gathering and investigation stage.
Bennett also had similar sentiments to Elvins in terms of a heroin problem existing in the city.
“We have seen it from time to time so we know it’s here,” Bennett stated. “But it’s been very sporadic. We have been very lucky compared to other jurisdictions to the south of us.”
To date, nearly 6,700 law enforcement agencies carry Narcan or Noloxone nationwide. The state of Wisconsin currently lists 16 agencies who issue the substance including Madison Police Department, Dane County Sheriff’s Office and the Green Bay Police Department.