Opioid Addiction Epidemic Targeted by Local Law Enforcement Groups
by Robert Kimmel
Faced with the continuing opioid addiction epidemic and related deaths, local authorities are intensifying their efforts to battle the problem.
The police departments of Irvington, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow are among local law enforcement agencies aggressively working with the Town of Greenburgh’s Drug and Alcohol Task Force to deal with the growing addiction crisis. Set up in 2002, the force has made thousands of arrests of drug dealers and responded to addiction emergencies.
Prescribed opioids are pain relievers derived from morphine, which, like heroin, is a product of the Asian opium poppy plant. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are among the most prescribed opioids as is methadone, which is also used to reduce the withdrawal symptoms of addicts.
The local opioid dilemma reflects the national drug overdose epidemic that took more than 60,000 lives in 2016, a record high, according to preliminary estimates. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein stated this spring while announcing new federal initiatives to confront the problem.
That said, mortalities from drug overdoses in Westchester actually declined last year to 59 deaths from the prior year’s 83. But that has not halted the municipalities, the County and New York State from reinforcing their pursuits to curb drug addiction and the resulting fatalities.
The Task Force operates out of the Greenburgh Police Department with its plain-clothes officers from participating communities, and it also works with county, state and federal agencies in narcotics and alcohol-related investigations.
For more than a decade, both police and paramedics have seen increasing numbers of drug overdoses and deaths when responding to emergency calls. “We are definitely seeing more cases, both overdoses and fatalities,” said Greenburgh Police Chief Christopher T. McNerney. “We are unique; we do emergency medical services as well through our police department, with two agencies, EMS, and policing. We are seeing it from both the EMS side and the police side.”
Tarrytown Police Chief John Barbelet said his force, “…has been very proactive in regard to the problem that is occurring.” His department has encountered drug deaths due to opioid overdoses and Barbelet stated that, “We make it a policy here in Tarrytown that every time we have an overdose situation, we share that information with our Task Force officer.”
The coordination with the Greenburgh Task Force has also been advantageous for the Irvington and Sleepy Hollow Police Departments. “We have had our fair share,” Irvington Police Chief Michael Cerone noted in describing his department’s handling of the addiction challenge. Irvington’s police have worked actively with the Greenburgh Task Force in arresting drug dealers, Cerone said.
“We have been dealing with the drug problem…more so in the last year and a half,” Sleepy Hollow Police Chief Anthony Bueti stated. His department encountered a drug death last year, and has had at least four calls related to addiction overdoses within the past year.
Local police units are now also coordinating their push to investigate drug dealing with the Westchester County opioid/heroin task force, newly formed by District Attorney Anthony Scarpino, Jr.’s office and County Executive Rob Astorino. It is primarily aimed at going after drug dealers rather than those addicted. Scarpino described the drug epidemic as “the number one health threat in the county.”
The expanding problem is attributed mainly to the increase in opioid prescriptions as painkillers, which began in the 1990s. For some users, who often experience a degree of euphoria, abuse and addiction can follow.
“What we are finding is that there is a natural progression, when people have started with opioid prescription drugs, and when access to those opioids has been cut off, we were finding a progression to heroin,” McNerney said. “The price of some of those opioid pills on the street are double or triple the price of heroin on the street.”
Intervention on the federal, state and local level to curb the amount of prescribed opioid painkillers has also led to the use of illicit street drugs, among them, a potent synthetic opiate, fentanyl, which overuse, straight or mixed with heroin, can be fatal.
Narcan, an antidote medication carried by local police officers, has proven to be a lifesaver for abusers suffering from an opioid overdose. “Two of our officers recently used Narcan to save the life of a person suffering from an overdose,” Bueti said.
“We have had a number of saves by our police officers, carrying Narcan, and our medics carry Narcan,” McNerney said. Cerone and Barbelet noted similar experiences by their officers. Westchester County has also made Narcan available to the public and offers training for its use.
When it comes to arrests, the chiefs emphasized they are going after the dealers and not the addicts under most circumstances. A state law exempts from arrest those who call for help with a medical emergency. If there is a fatal overdose, the dealer responsible could be charged with homicide.
Eighteen suspected drug dealers were arrested this past May by Westchester authorities for allegedly selling heroin in White Plains and Elmsford. Some $1.5 million worth of heroin was recovered.
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