With the opioid crisis still ongoing, a new report has shed light on the controversial practice of state and local governments using opioid settlement money to fund various law enforcement programs and equipment.
The report by KFF Health found many examples of policing expenses funded by opioid settlement cash, such as $25,000 for a law enforcement conference on fentanyl in Colorado, $18,000 for cellphone-unlocking technology in Southington, Connecticut, and $2,900 for surveillance cameras and officer and canine training in New Lexington, Ohio. In addition, other communities across the country have used hundreds of thousands of dollars for vehicles, body scanners and other equipment.
This money — over $50 billion from an 18-year period — comes from national settlements with companies like Johnson & Johnson, Amerisource Bergen and Walmart, which were accused of contributing to the opioid epidemic.
The allocation of these funds to law enforcement, however, has raised ethical and pragmatic questions regarding the intended purpose of the money and its effectiveness in saving lives.
While the exact terms of these settlements may vary, in most cases, state and local governments are mandated to spend at least 85% of the funds on “opioid remediation.”
The mandate excludes the use of such funds for activities like road construction or school development, but allows governments to invest in law enforcement equipment, like new cruisers, if it aids officers in responding to overdose incidents.
Researchers say the decision on how to utilize these funds is still being debated.
While they acknowledge that these funds should not be spent on activities that have shown minimal impact, such as arresting low-level drug dealers or incarcerating individuals in need of treatment, they cannot completely exclude law enforcement from the equation, as their role is significant in addressing the opioid crisis.
In addition, due to the influx of the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is responsible for over 100,000 annual overdose-related deaths in the U.S., law enforcement leaders and lawmakers are keen to determine whether law enforcement funding is necessary to combat drug trafficking.
Indeed, some argue that law enforcement is crucial, while others believe that it’s time to shift the focus toward treatment and social services.
Patrick Patterson, vice chair of Michigan’s Opioid Advisory Commission, called for a measured stance on funding.
“We need to have a balance when it comes to spending opioid settlement funds,” he said. If a county funds a recovery coach inside the jail, but no recovery services in the community, then “where is that recovery coach going to take people upon release?” he asked.
Experts also noted that while settlements may provide billions of dollars, that money is still inadequate to address the devastating scope of the opioid epidemic.
In Michigan, the debate over the use of settlement funds centers on the use of body scanners for jails. Kalamazoo County recently purchased an Intercept body scanner for $200,000, which is marketed as a cutting-edge screening tool for detecting contraband.
Jail administrator Logan Bishop defended this purchase by pointing to past incidents where drugs concealed in inmates’ bodies led to fatalities or overdoses.
“The ultimate goal is to save lives,” Bishop argued.
However, several other counties concluded that the scanners did not meet the settlement’s allowable expenses and used alternative funds for their acquisition.
This was the case for the Benzie County Sheriff’s Office, according to Sheriff Kyle Rosa.
“Our county attorney read over parameters of the settlement’s allowable expenses, and his opinion was that it would not qualify. So we had to hit the brakes,” Rosa said.
Many experts in the criminal justice and addiction treatment fields argue that settlement funds would be better spent on improving access to medications for opioid use disorder, which have been proven to save lives and keep individuals engaged in treatment.
However, the balance between funding law enforcement and treatment efforts remains a contentious issue.
A call to action was recently signed by over 200 researchers and clinicians declaring that more policing is not the answer to the overdose crisis.
Research also suggested that law enforcement and criminal justice initiatives have, in many cases, exacerbated the problem by arresting individuals during overdose responses and causing fear of arrest during emergencies.
A study even linked opioid seizures to a doubling of overdose deaths in areas surrounding those seizures.
In light of these findings, some argued that the police should not be involved in public health interventions.
Instead, the focus should shift to providing specialized mental health and addiction treatment options.
The lack of readily available treatment and prevention efforts is seen as a fundamental problem, and by the time individuals are incarcerated, many opportunities to help them have been missed.
Still, some law enforcement officials argue that they play a vital role in addressing drug-related issues, as tools like body scanners and patrol vehicles can potentially save lives and reduce drug-related incidents.
These tools, they believe, should be complemented by educational and prevention efforts.
“People need to look beyond, ‘Oh, it’s just a vest or it’s just a squad car,’ because those tools could impact and reduce drugs in their communities,” said Shawn Bain, a retired captain of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office in Ohio. “That cruiser could very well stop the next guy with five kilos of cocaine,” and a vest “could save an officer’s life on the next drug raid.”
In Louisiana, a significant portion of settlement dollars is directed toward parish governments and sheriff’s departments, with sheriffs’ offices in the state set to receive more than $65 million over the lifetime of the settlements.
The agencies are not required to provide detailed expense reports on how these funds are used, unlike parish governments.
While some believe that sheriffs will spend the money appropriately, others were skeptical about the lack of potential oversight, arguing that transparency is essential to maintain trust, especially when dealing with issues as critical as the opioid crisis.