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National initiative brings law enforcement training on opioid crisis to Nevada

Illegal drugs packaged in brown paper, tape and plastic wrap are stacked on a table bearing the logo of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Courtesy U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
Packaged methamphetamine and fentanyl pills seized by agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration during Operation Crystal Shield in September 2020.

The SHIELD Training Initiative is focused on helping police respond to the national overdose crisis. In August, instructors brought their evidence-based approach to Nevada.

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of emergency room visits related to opioids rose by 67 percent in Nevada.

But the crisis still isn’t as bad as on the East Coast, where the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl has been circulating for a longer time. That’s why Brandon del Pozo wants Nevada public officials to start thinking about prevention and treatment now, before things get any worse.

“As fentanyl has spread throughout the country, the states – for example, like Nevada – that haven't been touched as much are still seeing their overdose rate steadily climb,” he said.

Del Pozo is a former police chief, who studies public health at Brown University and leads educational seminars for the SHIELD Training Initiative. He travels the country, teaching law enforcement officers best practices for responding to a national crisis that’s entering its third decade.

The Las Vegas event was the first time he led the training in Nevada.

Reflecting on his own law enforcement career, del Pozo said he and his colleagues would have benefited from evidence-based training on how to approach problematic drug use.

“When I was a young police officer in Brooklyn in the nineties, patrolling East Flatbush, we knew that we never wanted to get stuck with a needle. But we didn't know exactly why, or what the risks were or how to prevent that,” he said. “I wish that we knew better earlier.”

Del Pozo has been leading SHIELD seminars for about five years. But it was Northeastern University professor Leo Beletsky who started the program two decades ago.

Back then, he discovered that many departments didn’t have access to evidence-based training about opioid addiction.

“So in its very DNA, SHIELD is a research-based program that takes as its first task, understanding the experiences of first responders,” he said. “And then building the curriculum around those needs.”

The lack of information can create space for misinformation to spread – like a common misconception that responding officers can accidentally overdose on fentanyl by touching it with their skin or inhaling it as a powder.

“It has never been documented to cause any health effects, let alone an overdose event,” Beletsky said.

He also explained that kind of myth can put greater stress on first responders, whose jobs are already extremely difficult.

“There is a crisis in law enforcement recruitment, and retention,” he said.

But Beletsky has seen a lot of progress over the last 20 years, too, both at the street level and among police leadership. More and more, they’re advocating for community-level solutions to the conditions that drive problematic drug use.

According to Beletsky, those policy changes are part of the point.

“If we can activate law enforcement leadership, including police unions and other voices, law enforcement voices, to start advocating for improving access to substance use treatment, improving access to housing, improving access to the kinds of supports that we know help people find recovery – that's sort of the ‘golden grail’ of the training,” he said.

For more information on Nevada’s response to the opioid crisis, including where to find fentanyl test strips and kits to reverse an overdose, visit NVOpioidResponse.org.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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