Needlesticks On The Beat
An Essay by Former Policewomen Jen “Crash” Earls
As a patrol officer with the Chicago Police Department the unknown was the most dangerous enemy I ever faced. I dealt with it many times in my 8 years on the streets.
But often it wasn’t the unkempt woman slumped over the steering wheel of her car at the red light. It was a well-dressed young woman with seven used needles in her expensive purse, driving a posh Lexus.
The danger came from not knowing which woman was the most dangerous. The woman at the red light had slipped into a diabetic coma. She could have hurt many people but we removed her and got her some medical help. The woman driving the expensive Lexus was looking for Heroin and ran a red light in her desperation to score. While searching her purse, I stuck my finger on a syringe. It was one of the scariest moments of my career. I didn’t know the syringe was there, I didn’t know if she had HIV/AIDS or viral hepatitis B or C.
I was a young officer working in one of the worst districts in the city for drug use and violent crime. I didn’t tell anyone about my needlestick. I put hand sanitizer and a band-aid on my wound and went about my business. When I brought the arrestee back to the station, she was starting to get drug sick and there was paperwork to finish. There was a lot to do. I understood that there wasn’t time to stop and worry about a needlestick.
I didn’t understand then if I had any protections at all. I could have asked my Sergeant to fill out an exposure report. I would have had the needlestick on record at the Medical Section. I would have gotten tested and they would have offered me the prophylactic HIV/AIDS medication AZT to take for several months to decrease my risk of contracting the virus. It would have been a “big deal.” And no rookie cop wants to be a big deal in this way. Arrest a burglar, recover a kilo of dope maybe, but not because I got stuck with a dirty syringe.
When I first started, officers were expected to enforce Chapter 720 of Illinois State Statute 635/1, Illegal Possession of Hypodermic Instruments. By July of my first year, an addendum was added. Adults could purchase up to 20 needles from a pharmacy. If they carried 21 or more they needed to be enrolled in a syringe access program (a place where you can get sterile syringes and turn in your used ones) and carry an identification card. After the law change I rarely found dirty needles on searches or pat downs.
Knowledge is power. As an officer I knew a lot about the law. I knew about reasonable suspicion, probable cause and the subtle differences between misdemeanors and felonies. What I didn’t have was the feeling that my department supported my health or me. If they had, I would have known the proper protocol when I was stuck. If I had broken my hand or been in a car accident I knew what to do, but not if I was exposed to a potentially life-threatening illness like HIV or viral hepatitis B or C.
My department didn’t provide masks, gloves or first aid kits to officers working the streets. We had no training on how to recover or dispose of syringes or drug paraphernalia safely. I didn’t know the simple protocol to wash my injury with soap and water after a needlestick.
I believe a combination of harm reduction education programs that teach drug users on safer syringe use and biohazard storage plus syringe decriminalization makes a vast difference in the lives of law enforcement officers. I think officers need to know how to safely handle paraphernalia (such as drug cookers, pipes and tourniquets) and syringes. They need to know when to wear needlestick resistant gloves and when to take extra precautions.
Officers also need to know their health risks. They should know what diseases are on the streets and how to spot a person who is potentially ill. In realty this is everyone because you can’t tell who has an HIV infection or viral hepatitis by looking at him or her. They must understand how to keep themselves healthy. Officers also deserve to know the percentage they risk of contracting a disease every time they handle drug paraphernalia.
Law enforcement officers statewide warrant the additional safety that syringe decriminalization legislation can provide. Statistics have repeatedly proven that increased syringe access for the public does not increase crime or drug use. The facts are that law enforcement officers will encounter drug users and syringe carriers in the course of their jobs. This is especially prevalent in North Carolina where 1 in 12 people carry needles. There are approximately 50,000 injection drug users and around 700,000 diabetics. Officers will be put in positions where they need to search subjects. They will encounter syringes and drug paraphernalia and deserve to be able to do it safely. It therefore becomes necessary to make every attempt to create the safest conditions possible for both officers and users.
The evidence also shows that shows that law enforcement chances of getting a needlestick go down by 66% with syringe decriminalization. When the fear of arrest disappears, drug users are more likely to let an officer know they are carrying needles. This is why in states like New Mexico, who have partially decriminalized syringes, see around 66% less officer needlesticks than states that have criminalized syringes such as North Carolina.
The syringe decriminalization will also keep the users healthier. If they have the option of using fresh syringes rather than sharing dirty needles, their risk for contracting or distributing diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B and C goes down significantly. This simple idea keeps many people safer and healthier. Officers and their families will be at much less risk for contracting terminal and severe illnesses, since infection rates among drug users on the streets have been shown to diminish when clean needles are available.
In summary, I highly recommend that the state of North Carolina and its fellow southern states decriminalize syringes. It is necessary for both the health and safety of law enforcement officer’s and the public they protect and serve.