How law enforcement can use analytics to combat the opioid epidemic

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Gov. Tom Wolf announces in April that Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources rangers will start carrying naloxone to aid opioid overdose victims. Image by Flickr user Governor Tom Wolf

A steady drumbeat of news coverage makes one thing clear: Opioid abuse is rising and has reached epidemic levels throughout our country. Overdoses from the diversion and abuse of prescription opioids are one cause of the surge in deaths. Overdoses from heroin and other illicit synthetic opioids (such as heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil) are an even greater issue, resulting in approximately twice as many fatalities as prescription opioids. Law makers, health departments and the medical community are all searching for ways to slow the volume and diversion of prescription drugs, but law enforcement officers are at the front lines of the battle.

Domestic violence calls, emergency medical calls, narcotics investigations and patrol-related activity can all involve an officer encountering someone overdosing from opioids. Today, many officers are put in the role of drug counselor and medical worker as much as they are enforcement officer. We must understand what officers are experiencing, what resources they need to more effectively help those in need -- and the future threats they may face.

In the criminal justice community, you often hear people say: “We cannot arrest our way out of the opioid epidemic.” And while that's certainly valid, the people responsible for illegal opioid distribution should be prosecuted. Data and analytics can help with enforcement, but can be used to help facilitate treatment and prevention as well.

Law enforcement needs better technology to access, manage, search and analyze data. With the opioid problem, in particular, law enforcement needs to be able to identify actionable intelligence from both structured and unstructured data such as case notes, narratives, attachments, text and metadata.

There are dozens of data sets with valuable intelligence that can help define, explain and respond to the opioid crisis from an enforcement perspective. Dispatch, incident, arrest, drug task force, informant, crime lab, investigative and intelligence data are all managed by law enforcement and include valuable pieces to the puzzle. Health, EMS, naloxone deployment, jail and social services data can provide further insights when coupled with enforcement data. State and local law enforcement need to understand that data can help them fight the opioid issue in several ways:

  • Sharing data between neighboring jurisdictions to understand emerging threats (new formulas, increase in overdoses).
  • Analyzing crime lab data to understand new formulas and sources of heroin/opioids.
  • Analyzing naloxone deployments to ensure officers have the resources they need to reduce deaths and remain safe.
  • Analyzing law enforcement data (RMS, CAD, field interviews, investigations narratives, available social media data) to identify actionable intelligence and disrupt distribution.
  • Understanding complex criminal networks through social network analysis to identify key suspects so investigative resources can be better deployed.
  • Analyzing law enforcement encounters with those affected by opioids to improve training and resource deployment.
  • Informing policymakers so they can update laws to bring appropriate charges against those responsible for opioid deaths.

The Trump administration has indicated that criminal justice and law enforcement will be the tip of the spear in fighting the opioid epidemic. While opinions differ on that approach, both law enforcement and public health can benefit from analytics and sharing available data.

The capabilities described above are just a start to enabling public safety to combat the opioid epidemic. Law enforcement needs to better use data to disrupt opioid trafficking and local distribution, identify key players and make more major arrests.

In coordination with these enforcement activities, states and municipalities also need to improve addiction services, treatment programs and medical care. Rural areas are particularly at risk due to lack of access to treatment and addiction services.

The opioid epidemic is a tremendous challenge to law enforcement, EMS, the courts, corrections and our government as a whole. But improvements can be made that help more of our citizens return to healthy, productive lives -- and punish those who prosper off the suffering of others.

To learn more about how law enforcement and intelligence agencies can improve data sharing and use analytics to uncover criminal networks, check out this free webinar on investigation analytics and intelligent case management.

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About Author

David Kennedy

Senior Industry Consultant, SAS US Government Practice

David Kennedy is a Senior Industry Consultant for public safety in the US Government Practice at SAS. He has worked with criminal justice and public safety agencies for 12 years, helping them use data and analytics to manage cases, catch perpetrators and keep citizens, and officers, safe.

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