Local officers taking measures to protect themselves from overdoses while handling drugs

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Nowadays, heroin is more dangerous than ever, simply because it’s not solely heroin in many cases. So dangerous, in fact, that officers are having to take extra steps to protect themselves from potential overdoses during their investigations.

“As officers we’re coming in contact with different people, and different substances and we don’t know what we’re dealing with until we’re right in the middle of it,” said Lt. William Penn, of the Winston-Salem Police Department.

Heroin is now being cut with substances such as fentanyl, which can be 100 times more powerful than morphine. Penn says lately, in the city of Winston-Salem, officers are coming in contact with heroin which has been cut with fentanyl more often than heroin which is not. In turn, narcotics officers are now sending steps out for patrol officers to take in order to ensure they’re safely handling the drugs.

“We have to pay much more close attention to our own protection,” Penn said.

These steps include things like always wearing gloves and having naloxone on them at all times in the case of an accidental overdose.

“If the situation arises where they may need to put on a whole suit, that’s what we’ll do,” Penn said.

This goes for both in the field and in the office. Officers are now using a buddy system while storing the drugs in case they become exposed.

“We don’t need officers storing alone, and something happening and not having a buddy there to back them up,” Penn added.

The department has also changed the way they approach testing the substances. For example, if a suspect is not a flight risk, they may hold off on charging them, so the officers can send a sample to the lab for testing instead of doing a field test.

“It’s much better to send to a lab, and in a controlled setting and allow them to tell us what it is,” Penn said.

K-9 officers are also being protected, with their handlers carrying naloxone for them.

“To ensure that the K-9 partner is OK if they run across a bad mix,” Penn added.

Although the department has not had one of their officers succumb to an overdose while coming in contact with the drug, Penn says there is a good chance someone in their department has felt the effects and not realized what had happened.

“You may start sweating profusely, and just start having that ill effect, not much different from an overdose,” he said.

Officers also suggest that citizens exercise caution at home, should they come across an unknown substance.

“It’s just best to stay clear, give us a call, and let us do what we need to do,” Penn said. “Time is on our side, so not rushing in to touch those things, that’s key for any citizen.”

Greensboro police say they have universal measures to protect themselves from fentanyl and other dangerous substances. For example, they carry a set of personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks, CPR masks and gas masks. They also have biohazard bags and access to hazmat suits if they need them.

Winston-Salem police say they responded to 164 overdoses in 2016 and are on pace for 192 in 2017.