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
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.
The Independent, 03.06.2012
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