The Negative Effects of Syringe Criminalization on Law Enforcement:
A Interivew with Officer Jen Earls
Written by NCHRC Staff Writer Tessie Castillo
Edited by NCHRC’s Robert Childs
Police officers risk their lives to protect our communities, but there’s one group whose safety they often overlook– themselves. Tight budgets leave many police departments unable to afford sufficient training and equipment to protect personnel from exposure to blood borne disease.
Officer Jen Earls was employed for eight years with the Chicago police department. During her time as a patrol officer and a member of rapid response and special operations teams, she constantly came in contact with dirty needles, broken crack pipes, razors, and other “sharps” that could potentially infect an officer with HIV and hepatitis C.
“We weren’t trained on how to deal with sharps and we had no biohazard containers to dispose of dirty syringes,” says Officer Earls. “A lot of police are naïve about needles, even afraid of them. I’ve seen officers let situations go because they just didn’t want to deal with needles.”
In Chicago, as in North Carolina, though law enforcement training programs teach police how to conduct searches, few show officers what to do with “sharps” or provide biohazard containers or needle-resistant gloves for protection.
“I’ve been stuck by needles and cut by broken crack pipes and razors while on duty,” says Officer Earls. “We had to search people so quickly, it was easy to touch something dangerous. If one of us got stuck, we might report it to a superior officer so he could write an exposure report, or we might not. I never sought treatment for needle-sticks because we were supposed to be tough guys, you know. We’d get cut and move on.”
Studies have shown that 1 in 3 officers will receive a needle-stick in their careers, and 28% will receive more than one. Prophylaxis treatment, which is recommended following exposure to potentially contaminated needles can lower the risk of disease transmission, but it is extremely unpleasant for officers and costly for departments (up to $30,000 per exposure). Officer training programs such as the one offered by the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) train law enforcement on how officers can protect themselves from dangerous “sharps”, even if departments don’t have the money for equipment like needle-resistant gloves. These programs can reduce the incidence of disease exposure to officers and save police departments’ money that can be invested in employee benefits and new equipment.
NCHRC also works with law enforcement to advocate for syringe decriminalization. This protects officers from contaminated sharps exposures, because people being searched are more likely to admit carrying sharps if it is legal to do so. States that have done so have seen a decrease in Needlesticks by 66%. NCHRC successfully advocated for House Bill 601 to decriminalize syringes in North Carolina, which will help keep officers safe, so they can keep doing what they do best – look out for the rest of us.
The Risks of the Job: Protecting Law Enforcement from Needle Stick Injuries: http://vimeo.com/6599539
Contact Tessie to join our syringe decriminalization advocacy team at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Lorentz J, Hill J, Samini B. Occupational needle stick injuries in a metropolitan police force. American Journal of Preventive Medicine.2000;18:146–150.
Amfar Fact Sheet on Law Enforcement and Syringe Exchange