By Joe Gorman
Police responded to 377 heroin-overdose calls in 2017 at a variety of places in the city.
Officers were called to treatment centers, doctor’s offices, parking lots, the Ohio State Penitentiary on the East Side, an auto parts store, a Laundromat, fast-food restaurants, a bowling alley, Community Corrections Association, St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital and under the Mahoning Avenue Bridge.
People overdosing were also thrown out of moving cars in the middle of the street, dumped on lawns, found slumped over the wheel of a car in the street or in a parking lot.
Chief Robin Lees acknowledged the number of calls was high, yet he said if it was just one overdose a day, the department could probably handle that in stride.
The most overdose calls police responded to in 2017 in one day was four and that happened four times in 2017: April 19, April 25, May 23 and July 29.
Overdose calls cause a ripple effect on police operations, Lees said. He said they typically require one car and a supervisor to respond, and sometimes two cars if it is fatal or if multiple people overdosed.
If the overdose is fatal, a team of detectives goes to the scene and patrol officers have to stay until they leave. That requires nonpriority calls on that beat to go unanswered if the beat car is tied up.
If that is the case, then cars from other beats have to be dispatched for a priority call. Working two or more overdoses at the same time ties up manpower and creates a backlog of calls, Lees said.
It is possible that on one overdose call there can be two patrol officers and their supervisor, two detectives and their supervisor, and an officer from the department’s crime lab.
The South Side had the most calls for overdoses, with 162, followed by the West Side with 119. Lees said that is not surprising because those are the city’s two most heavily populated areas. According to 2015-16 population estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau supplied by the Youngstown State University Center For Urban Studies, the South Side has a population of 23,172 and the West Side has a population of 17,732.
The patrol beat with the most overdose calls was also the beat that had the most calls overall in 2017, Car 204, which had 58 calls, according to records.
Officers handled the most calls on Market Street on the South Side and Mahoning Avenue on the West Side, with 17 and 14, respectively.
Lees said those streets lead in calls not only because they are major streets, but they also have a lot of businesses with parking lots, where people will take drugs. Someone can park and blend in with other cars and not draw attention, Lees said.
“It’s a matter of convenience,” Lees said.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
As for what he can do on his end to try and slow the OD calls, Lees said the vice squad takes care of drug investigations on the street level.
He also noted three law-enforcement task forces take on drug cases as well as the overdose task force created by Mahoning County Sheriff Jerry Greene to help investigate fatal overdoses and see if anyone can be charged.
Lt. Gerard Slattery, head of the vice squad, said he tries his best to be proactive in investigations so local drug sales do not spiral out of control.
“Drugs are always going to be a part of society,” Slattery said. “We just try to do the best we can to stay on top of it.”
In 2017, the vice squad, with help from the Community Police Unit, served 93 search warrants at homes investigating drug activity, with 53 of those warrants on the South Side. Sixteen warrants were served on the North Side, 12 on the East Side and 11 on the West Side.
Slattery said the biggest change he saw in 2017 was the increase in fentanyl, a synthetic opiate produced in China. Slattery said he estimated police encountered 50 percent more fentanyl overdoses in 2017 than in 2016.
He said fentanyl is a win-win for dealers and users. It is cheaper and easier to get for dealers because they order it off the internet and wait for it to come in the mail, rather than dealing with a traditional drug courier.
As for users, Slattery said they like the high from fentanyl, but it can be deadly, far deadlier than heroin. He said he doesn’t believe demand from users for fentanyl is responsible for its rise but rather the fact that it is cheaper and easier to get.
“Anything that makes them [dealers] more money they are for,” Slattery said.
Lees said patrol officers can offer treatment resources to people arrested for misdemeanor drug crimes such as possession of drug paraphernalia or possession of drug-abuse instruments, as well as to people they come into regular contact with on their beats who they know have a history of drug offenses.
According to the latest figures from the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office, 114 people died of opiate-based overdoses in 2017 in the county. They did not provide a number for deaths in the city, and the city Board of Health said they did not have that information either, but the city had several fatal overdoses.
The city health department referred The Vindicator to the coroner’s office for the number of fatal overdoses. The coroner’s office referred the paper to the Mahoning County District Board of Health, which referred the paper back to the coroner’s office, which referred The Vindicator back to the board of health.
Slattery said he believes there would have been more OD deaths had it not been for the opiate antidote naloxone.
City police officers on all shifts began carrying naloxone or Narcan in their cruisers in August, said Capt. Kevin Mercer, who heads the department’s planning and training. From August through December they used naloxone 26 times, with officers using it six times each in August and September; eight times in October four times in November; and twice in December.
So far in 2018, officers have used Narcan twice, Mercer said. Narcan is supplied to police by the county health board through Project DAWN, or Deaths Avoided With Naloxone.