Deputies with the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office are often among the frontline public safety officers responding to drug overdoses throughout the county. The office has been involved in efforts to combat the growing rate of overdose deaths – particularly as a result of opioids – for several years.
Former Sheriff Rich Stanek spoke frequently about the epidemic and promoted the #NOverdose campaign, aimed at curbing the rate of opioid painkiller and heroin overdose deaths during his tenure. He was also a proponent of equipping deputies with naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, which is used to block the effects of opioids in an overdose.
Current Sheriff Dave Hutchinson was elected six months ago and took office in January. He is a proponent of furthering the county’s efforts to curb the rate of overdose deaths and is working with county officials on systemic changes in how the sheriff’s office responds to drug users both during and after a 911 call summons deputies to the scene of an overdose.
Hutchinson wants drug users who are arrested to be viewed as ill – not treated as criminals. According to county statistics, 40 percent of the total jail population is related to opioid use.
Rather than simply criminalizing the behavior, Hutchinson prefers to see those addicted to drugs provided the care and services needed to prevent a repeat of the criminal cycle, he explained.
“We want to save lives,” he said.
The increase in overdose deaths has been on the sheriff’s office radar for several years. By 2011, “We started to see a dramatic uptick in overdose deaths in the county,” according to Tim Stout, a senior administrative manager with the sheriff’s office.
The first response to the increase in overdose deaths was a basic prevention campaign that culminated in the #NOverdose campaign of 2017. It was a campaign of necessity, as the number of overdose deaths continued to rise, Stout explained.
The fight against opioid overdoses has become a collaborative effort among several offices across county government, Stout said. From education to safe storage and disposal of opioids, the county’s public health office, mental health services, district courts and county attorney’s office have all been involved and working with the sheriff’s office toward prevention and overdose reduction, he noted.
According to county statistics, opioid-related deaths disproportionately affect young adults. In 2016, 22% of such deaths in the county were those of young people aged 15-24 and 20% of the deaths were of people from 25 to 34 years of age.
Another organization involved in the fight is Partnership for Change, which uses data-driven and evidence-based strategies to reduce youth substance in northwest Hennepin County.
The Robbinsdale-based organization is housed at the North Memorial Trauma Services department and brings together members including school officials, parents, youth, law enforcement and community groups. The group serves Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, Golden Valley, Maple Grove, New Hope, Osseo, Plymouth and Robbinsdale.
To address opioid abuse, Partnership for Change facilitates a medicine abuse prevention workgroup.
“Our efforts include providing information to promote the use of medicine disposal boxes, informing community members about medicine disposal box locations, and educating community members about the importance of disposing of unwanted, unused or expired medications,” said Tara Helm, Partnership for Change coordinator.
The organization conducts medicine disposal campaigns. Coalition members dropped off flyers at pharmacies, oral surgery offices and hospice centers to share the importance of proper medicine disposal. Ads were also placed in community newspapers and on Partnership for Change’s social media pages. Partnership for Change has arranged for a billboard to be posted along Interstate 694 to encourage community members to find disposal boxes.
The sheriff’s office also promotes proper disposal of unused and unwanted medications as a means to remove opioid painkillers from circulation. From dedicated drop-off sites at law enforcement offices or pharmacies to special collections – including at area senior centers – the sheriff’s office is working to make it easy to dispose of opioids. It takes them out of circulation and ensures they’re destroyed in an environmentally safe way, Stout explained.
The sheriff’s office also hands out special bags at events throughout the year, which can be used to destroy prescription pills by adding water to the pills placed inside the bag, which contains activated carbon. The sealed bags are then safe to dispose of with household trash,
The Partnership for Change workgroup also works closely with North Memorial Health to decrease the misuse of prescription medications. This has included having outpatient pharmacists provide patients with information about where to dispose of their medications on their outpatient summary.
Research indicates that adolescents often have unsupervised access to medications in the home, and drugs that have abuse potential are typically not securely stored, Helm said.
This is why Partnership for Change has made it a mission to enhance access to medicine disposal boxes to reduce access to commonly abused medications.
Changing to save lives
Hutchinson supports changes in the way the county jail processes and handles people who are addicted drugs. He is a proponent of body scanners, which provide a more thorough and less invasive search for concealed narcotics when a drug addict is booked into the jail, he explained.
The jail’s medical staff members also screen inmates for opioid-use disorder, with the goal of identifying their addiction in an effort to direct them toward treatment and help outside of jail. The goal is to help drug users stay clean and “not come back into the jail and repeat the vicious cycle,” Stout said.
A recent study of opioid deaths in Minnesota found that nearly one-third of overdose deaths occurred within a year of a victim’s release from jail, he noted.
The number of overdose deaths has yet to decline, and Stout said it will take the collaborative effort across county departments to combat the epidemic up front and with long-term medical care.
Hutchinson thinks the county’s approach may serve as a national model for treating opioid addiction and overdoses, although that’s not the benchmark he would use to measure the county’s success.
“We don’t want accolades,” he said. “We want to save people’s lives.”