HEADLINES Published February9, 2016 By Bernadette Strong

Heroin Epidemic Is Changing Policing

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Police departments are changing some of their tactics as the heroin epidemic grinds on.
(Photo : Spencer Platt, Getty Images )

The widespread use of heroin in the United States has been called an epidemic and a scourge. It is affecting all parts of life in many areas of the United States and is changing the way that police are dealing with drug abuse.

Many police departments are using new approaches to drug abuse and drug abusers, and are redefining the roles police officers have in the community. They making referrals to drug rehabilitation and counseling, with efforts that are more social work than police work.

In Colerain Township, OH, police, paramedics and addiction counselors joined forces to steer drug users into treatment after they overdose, while the memory of the event is still frightening. In Gloucester, MA, the police department started to help get addicts into treatment if they turned in their drugs and drug equipment.

These are signs that the former "get tough on drugs" stance did not always work and that arresting the addicts was not stopping the epidemic. It is a big change from when the rule was to throw all "junkies" into jail.

"We may think this is soft (for police), but when you have a crisis in your community, you need to be proactive. We're being aggressive," John Tharp, sheriff of Lucas County, OH, said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Heroin overdose deaths have more than tripled since 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The drug is easily available, stronger than it used to be, and cheap: a bad combination. Heroin use is also an outgrowth of the epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.

These antidrug efforts by police have had an impact on crime. In addition to reducing the number of overdoses, there are fewer robberies by addicts trying to get money to buy drugs.

However, there has been some that say the changing face of addiction plays a role in why policing has become more proactive and preventative and less punishment-oriented. Heroin use has grown widely among white Americans. When drugs like crack cocaine were decimating the black community, programs that diverted users to treatment instead of jail were not in place, according to an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times

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