A Miami-Dade police officer was guarding a crime scene in Liberty City when a woman staggered up, pleading for help and collapsed. Her breath was short, her pupils contracted.
She was overdosing — most likely on heroin or fentanyl.
But even before paramedics arrived, another Miami-Dade patrol officer rushed to the scene, armed with a life-saving nasal spray that revived the woman on the spot. The rescue a few months ago was made thanks to a Miami-Dade police pilot project, part of a larger push to get law-enforcement officers to carry the overdose-reversing drug Narcan — a critical field tool for reducing the casualties of Florida’s crushing opioid crisis.
In South Florida, many departments have been slow to train and equip their officers with the drug, concerned about potential liability, a lack of officer training and challenges in properly storing the kits. But steadily, it’s happening.
Last week, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, through a $375,000 state grant, received a batch of Narcan kits, which will be distributed in the coming weeks to eight smaller police departments in Miami-Dade County, including Doral, North Miami Beach and Key Biscayne.
“You get into this job to make a difference and keep people alive,” said Miami Shores Police Chief Kevin Lystad, head of the FPCA. “Often times, we’re the first ones that are going to get [to an overdose scene], and the more tools and capabilities we have, it’s important.”
Across Florida, police departments in some of the hardest hit areas have begun to train their cops.
Police in Delray Beach — a hot spot because of the large number of drug treatment homes — began carrying Narcan this spring, while in Manatee County, home to Sarasota and another opioid-ravaged area, deputies are also getting the drug. Local federal agencies, with fears of agents and even search dogs being exposed to fentanyl during drug busts, were among the first to carry Narcan locally.
And more than 20 investigators with the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, including those who work as part of an anti-gang task force in Liberty City, have also begun carrying Narcan in recent months. “This is an added value we can put into our arsenal in fighting this epidemic,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.
Still, whether the bigger police departments opt to equip their officers with the drug remains up in the air.
Larger departments such as Hialeah, North Miami and Miami Gardens, as of now, have not moved to buy the Narcan kits, which costs governments $75 for a two-pack.
Miami-Dade’s six-month pilot project — which equipped 24 patrol officers in the Liberty City area — ends this month, with two rescues recorded. The police chief in the city of Miami, which has been particularly hard hit by overdoses, says the department is still studying the idea.
The head of Miami’s police union, however, is not on board.
“We aren't firefighters. We are law enforcement officers,” said Javier Ortiz, head of the Fraternal Order of Police. “If we begin responding to those calls in emergency mode, there will be a backlog of calls for service for those taxpayers that choose not to do drugs.
One of the most high-profile police critics has been an Ohio sheriff named Richard K. Jones, who made national headlines when he declared his deputies would never carry Narcan because agitated addicts were a danger to his men.
Opioid addiction is unquestionably a crisis in Florida, most recently starting with the “pill mill” clinics that doled out potent painkillers such as Oxycodone. When Florida cracked down on pill distribution, addicts turned to heroin and lethal synthetic chemicals.
Most often, those drugs are illegal variations of fentanyl imported from clandestine labs in China. In Miami, 541 people have died after ingesting fentanyl or variants since 2014, including 156 this year alone, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office.
The drug is powerful enough that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and police departments have warned officers about breathing it in or even touching it, although absorption through the skin is slow. Last fall, three Broward police dogs got sick after sniffing the drug during a federal raid.
The rise in opioid abuse also has led to the creation of the state’s first needle-exchange program in Overtown, a notorious hot spot for drug sales and overdose deaths. The program, run in conjunction with the University of Miami, also trains and gives out Narcan to addicts.
The drug, also known as Naloxone, comes in a nasal-spray format and is easy to administer with little training, said Dr. Hansel Tookes, who runs the program. It also poses no danger, even if the person is not actually overdosing on opioids, he said.
Over 150 people on the streets have been revived through the program’s Narcan, Tookes said. That includes the case of one staffer who revived a man overdosing in front of Miami police officers who were waiting for paramedics to arrive, he said.
“It would be amazing if Miami police carried it,” Tookes said. “It's very easy to administer. I think Miami police would be very happy with the results.”
The idea has taken off outside of Florida.
States such as North Carolina and Massachusetts already have extensive programs that are credited with saving countless lives. The first program in the country was in Quincy, Mass., a city of about 100,000 people near Boston, which in 2010 began training officers to carry Narcan after a spike in overdoses involving the potent painkillers.
Today, the state of Massachusetts trains all officers on using Narcan. Quincy officers have used Narcan to revive nearly 700 people since 2010, including over 100 so far this year, according to the department.
Most often, Quincy officers revive people who have collapsed in fast-food restaurant bathrooms, private homes and even in their cars at stop-lights, said Lt. Patrick Glynn, who heads the program. Officers were initially hesitant to carry Narcan, he said, but the sheer number of overdoses soon underscored the program’s benefit.
“The biggest change here is that we have changed the mindsets of the officers. It goes back to that we have officers who have lost sons and family. It seems everybody has a family member or knows somebody who has overdosed,” Glynn said.