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How West Midlands is leading the way on Naloxone

Should more officers be equipped with the life-saving heroin overdose antidote or is it an extra burden?

Naloxone, a medication delivered as a nasal spray to block the effects of opioids and reverse a drugs overdose, has become part of some West Midlands Police officers’ toolkit.

Now other forces are looking to the West Midlands for best practise in relation to drug deaths.  

Birmingham has seen an escalation of deaths from Class A drugs over the past three years. One of the Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson’s top priorities is reducing reoffending and protecting people from harm caused by substance misuse

Equipping officers with Naloxone is one of his eight-point recommendations, published February 2018, which lay out their approach to tackling drugs misuse in terms of public cost, crime levels and number of deaths.

The force started with a commissioned survey and a high number of officers fed back that finding people on drugs was part of their everyday patrols and it was a fairly routine, in the city centre in particular, to give first aid to individuals who were severely under the influence of drugs.

PCC Jamieson said: “There was a frustration amongst the police officers. Many of them felt pretty powerless. They didn't know what to do very often about somebody slumped, almost apparently dead, and there was this feeling that they felt helpless in those circumstances.”

The force’s Naloxone pilot went live in Birmingham city centre in 2019. Carrying the nasal spray is voluntary and 51 WMP officers are now trained its use. Just one officer out of the first rollout then chose not to carry one.

There is no harm inflicted if an officer misidentifies an overdose and administers the drug as it only reacts to opioid receptors on the brain.

West Midland’s ambition is to grow that to all frontline staff across the force, but accepts it will have to be “small steps given that this is quite a controversial issue”, according to Temporary Superintendent Jane Bailey.

What are the concerns that are holding back its acceptance nationally?

“I think there's some real concern in policing around added demand place on patrolling officers at a time when much has been asked in policing. And I think that's certainly the reticence of the National Police Federation,” she said.

“This is not about replacing paramedics, it's actually about dynamic incidences - enabling our officers to deal with dynamic incidents as they come across as part of their patrol.”

While the Fed has its reservations, feedback from the frontline has apparently been positive.

T/Supt. Jane Bailey

T/Supt. Bailey said: “I think it's fantastic that officers found that they did actually want to use it and wanted to contribute to be able to save somebody's life in that situation, which was excellent. And I think the feedback from officers is that they've had the confidence to use it, which has been really, really positive.

“People have felt really confident that it's very easy to use. And I think the issue of the nasal administered Naloxone will be a game changer for policing. Because certainly before that, that was way too challenging in terms of the obvious health and safety issues with a needle stick.”

US officers are routinely issued with Naloxone, and a number of UK forces already use it in a custody environment.

West Midlands say they have put together a blueprint for other forces to follow in their footsteps of equipping frontline officers, and held a national learning event in November last year to share methodology and answer any questions around protocol.

T/Supt. Bailey said the willingness from other forces, such as North Wales and Police Scotland, to introduce is “really, really positive”.

Police Scotland Deputy Chief Constable, Fiona Taylor, said the force has been in consultation with internal and external stakeholders and partners around the potential for officers to carry Naloxone.

She said: “The Force Executive has agreed to explore proposals to carry out a test of change and these proposals are in the process of being developed following which the Force Executive will take a final decision on how Police Scotland will proceed."

But not everyone is convinced.

Scottish Police Federation has warned its members against potential allegations against them of assault, and do not believe administering the drug should be within the responsibility of a patrol officer.

North Wales Police said the use of Naloxone by officers is under "active consideration" but a date to roll out the pilot is yet to be confirmed.

The Federation said they broadly support officers carrying Naloxone but were adamant this should not be in replacement of a medical professional.

They said in a statement: “If Naloxone is needed there is clearly a medical emergency which requires the immediate attendance of paramedics or a healthcare professional and not a police officer.

“Whilst our primary duty is to save life it has to be acknowledged that when we are doing that under these circumstances we are not out catching criminals or preventing crime. The police are becoming a service that do all and there has to become a point when we draw a line and we say it’s not our job.

“We can see the benefits of providing officers with the ability to administer a lifesaving drug but stress that this should absolutely not be an alternative to a properly funded ambulance service.”

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