FOX19 Investigates: Cincinnati police officers could soon be carrying heroin antidote

Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse a heroin or opiate overdose.
Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse a heroin or opiate overdose.

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Cincinnati police officers could soon be armed with a new tool that has the ability to save thousands of lives in the Tri-State.

Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, can reverse a heroin or opiate overdose.

Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell told FOX19 he hopes to roll out the pilot program within three months.

"When a person is pretty much dead literally, and Narcan can bring them back, I think we have the responsibility to do what we can to save lives," Blackwell said. "We'll roll it out slowly, once we get it started.  We'll probably start with Quality of Life teams in each of the five districts,  two officers who walk, and we'll see how things go from there."

Blackwell told FOX19 he hopes to eventually have the program implemented department-wide.

As heroin overdoses have spiked across the country, more police agencies are equipping their officers with Narcan instead of waiting for paramedics to arrive. In the first seven months of 2014, Cincinnati fire and emergency medical crews administered Narcan more than 1,100 times, that's roughly seven overdoses a day.

"There are those times, because we patrol 24/7, our cops get there first," Blackwell said. "Just to have the availability of Narcan where we can help someone in a crisis that means a lot."

According to the Ohio Attorney General's office, in 2013, on average at least 17 Ohioans died each week from a heroin overdose. Earlier this year, Ohio lawmakers approved a measure to expand naloxone access to include law enforcement and first responders.

Narcan can be administered by injection under the skin, in a muscle or vein or in the case of law enforcement, in a nasal spray.

When someone takes heroin, it locks onto receptors in the brain, slowing the body down. If a person takes too much heroin, breathing can stop. Narcan, the so-called Lazarus drug, frees up the receptors, bringing the person back to life.

"Narcan allows the brain to remember to breathe again," said Dr. Marcus Romanello, the chief medical officer at Fort Hamilton Hospital in Hamilton.

"Narcan works within one to two minutes," he said. "Obviously, a policeman who's cruising the streets would get there much sooner than rallying an ambulance crew to jump in their vehicle and drive over from their station. I think whoever gets to the patient first is going to be the one with the greatest chance of saving a life."

Romanello said the hospital's emergency room averages at least one overdose a day and he says it's not just the stereotypical heroin addict they're treating.

"There is also the person walking next to you in the grocery store who does not appear to be a drug user, but when you roll up their sleeves, you're going to see the signs," he said.

But other local police agencies are taking a "wait-and-see" approach to Narcan programs for their officers. Other police agencies told FOX19 they simply don't have the money to buy the drug and train their officers. Each Narcan kit costs on average about $40.

"A lot of things are great ideas. But you have to look at the operational side.  How does it work?" said Hamilton Police spokesman Sergeant Ed Buns.

Buns said he applauds state lawmakers for the legislation, but has concerns about the mechanism for funding. Hamilton police are open to equipping their officers with Narcan, but currently don't have enough information to make that operational.

"You hate to say that anything that could save someone's life is a money issue, but it is. How are we going to fund it?" he said. "Narcan has a very short life.  It's not something you can throw in a cruiser and it's going to be there in two years. What are we going to do if you've got 100 or 1,000 officers and only 20 officers use Narcan in 90 days? That means you're throwing a lot of drugs away. That's a lot of expense, that's a lot of waste."

As for the Cincinnati Police Narcan program, Chief Blackwell wouldn't specify the funding source, but told FOX19 they're going to get "creative."

"If we have to go to [City] Council, we will. We don't anticipate that we will," Blackwell said.

Then there's the question of how to teach police to administer the drug safely and effectively.  Romanello gave a demonstration of how the nasal mist works.

"It's simply squirting a nasal spray up the nose, very similar to an Afrin Nasal spray," he said, as he sprayed a fine mist into the air.

The Ohio Attorney General's office just launched a free Narcan training course and education video for law enforcement. In Cincinnati, Blackwell said they plan to partner with Cincinnati fire on training, as their staff already has expertise with the drug.

Others remain skeptical about officers, many who have little medical training, administering Narcan.

"One of my guys pulls up to a scene, person is unconscious. Could be a heroin overdose, could be a heart attack, could be a diabetic emergency," Buns said.

But Dr. Romanello said the drug is not harmful if administered to a person having a medical event other than a heroin or opiate overdose.

Buns also worried if addicts know police have the drug, it gives them a false sense of security to abuse.

"With me, it's a double-edged sword," Buns said. "You never want to see anybody die, the other side is you see the same people over and over again."

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