Overdose calls jump 28% but Toronto police still aren't carrying naloxone kits

There is a renewed push to equip Toronto police officers with naloxone kits after a report revealed a significant jump in overdose-related 911 calls so far in 2017.

October’s monthly statistical briefing shows that from 2016 to 2017, the number of overdose calls from what police call “emotionally disturbed persons” increased by 28 per cent.

 The report, to be reviewed by the Toronto Police Services Board Thursday, shows as of October police responded to 2,120 overdose calls compared with 1,650 by the same period in 2016.

However, despite ongoing calls from the Toronto Police Association (TPA) to equip officers with naloxone — a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose — Toronto police officers still do not carry the injectors.

“We hope that it’s going to encourage the debate, to make something happen,” said TPA president Mike McCormack of the latest statistics.

Mike McCormack

Toronto Police Association president Mike McCormack says officers want naloxone included in their standard equipment. (CBC)

He says officers in Toronto’s downtown core and its entertainment district have been especially vocal about receiving the kits.

“We want to make sure our people, if there’s a potential to make a difference or save a life, have that equipment,” he said, adding that the drug could also be used to save an officer who comes into contact with potent opioids such as fentanyl.

‘They should carry it’

Along with the TPA, medical professionals and harm reduction workers have also been calling for naloxone kits to become more widely available.

“It is clear that because more and more overdoses are happening, it’s much more likely that police will be in contact with people that overdose,” said Dr. Bernard Le Foll, a drug addiction specialist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. 

Le Foll said the number of opioid overdoses and deaths has risen sharply over the past two years, and he was unsurprised by the matching increase in calls to police.

Dr. Bernard Le Foll

CAMH addiction specialist Dr. Bernard Le Foll said he sees no reason why officers should not carry naloxone. (CAMH)

“I don’t see any reason why they could not carry it,” he said.

Harm reduction worker Zoe Dodd calls the 28 per cent jump “huge,” but adds that the number of people calling police is likely just one third of the total number of overdoses happening in the city.

“A lot of us in the community still believe that police should not be the first to arrive … so that people feel more comfortable with calling,” she said, noting that drug users may fear prosecution. “But if police are going to arrive then they need to carry naloxone and be able to reverse an overdose.”

Other services carry the kits 

Members of several other police services in Ontario and across the country already carry the life-saving overdose antidote.

In September of 2016, the Vancouver Police Department started training officers and civilian members in high risk areas to use nasal naloxone kits.

“This was done to provide our employees with an antidote to prevent an opioid overdose from accidental exposure to dangerous synthetic opioids that our members are coming into contact with and seizing daily,” said media relations officer Const. Jason Doucette.

In an email to CBC, Doucette explained that the life-saving drug has also been used on members of the public and more officers have received training to use it .

“Officers in our Operations Division are now being personally issued naloxone then [they] train the remainder of the members in the department,” he said

So far he says naloxone has been used 18 times on citizens, and three times on officers.  

Meanwhile, Ottawa Police Service reacted to the ongoing opioid crisis by increasing the number of police officers that carry the life-saving drug this summer.

Previously only the drug unit had access to naloxone, but as of August 2017, the service had more than half of its members trained and equipped with the overdose antidote.

No change expected

If naloxone kits are provided to Toronto police, McCormack says the force will need to create clear policies and guidelines for its use, including an update to rules laid out by the Special Investigations Unit, Ontario’s police watchdog.

Ultimately, the decision will lie with the Toronto Police Service and the city, though neither has shown an indication that a change is coming.

“To my understanding there has been no move to equip officers with naloxone,” said police spokesperson Meaghan Gray, adding that police officers are generally not the first to arrive on scene after an overdose call.

“In many cases these are medical calls for service that would go to Toronto paramedics first.”

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