Police forces in British Columbia are looking into equipping officers with an overdose-reversing drug to help combat a worsening public-health crisis, but their union head says many officers still have hesitations about the initiative.
Departments in Vancouver and Abbotsford are considering having front-line officers carry the intranasal version of naloxone, which can counter the effects of an opioid overdose within minutes. Some firefighters in Vancouver and Surrey began carrying the injectable form of the drug early this year, and advocates have called for police to carry it as well.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union, as well as head of the British Columbia and Canadian police associations, said officers aren't trained to provide medical assistance, and discussions will need to take place about the appropriateness of such a change. He also noted that officers who provide the drug to someone who dies would be subject to investigation by the province's police watchdog.
"I would have a lot of questions around any initiative like that, about the risk and potential liability for police officers," Mr. Stamatakis said. "I would be concerned about police officers undertaking any activity that exposes them to more risk."
Naloxone is currently available only as an injection, though Health Canada has fast-tracked an easier-to-use nasal spray version, which is expected to be available soon.
Very few police officers in Canada currently carry naloxone.
Scott Pattison, spokesman for the Edmonton Police Service, said officers there began carrying the drug "after recognizing the extreme dangers associated to fentanyl and the potential for our officers to come into contact with the lethal drug."
Unlike paramedics and firefighters, police officers in B.C. are subject to investigation by the province's Independent Investigations Office, or IIO, in any instance where a person they interact with dies or is seriously harmed.
Mr. Stamatakis pointed to two recent incidents – on Salt Spring Island and in Abbotsford – in which police officers were investigated after performing CPR on people who later died. In those cases, the IIO found that the officers were not involved in any wrongdoing, and it released jurisdiction in two and 10 days, respectively.
The possibility of being investigated has an impact on officers' behaviour, he said.
"The effect of that is it just breeds this reluctance within the police community to get involved, and that's absolutely not the environment we want," Mr. Stamatakis said. "We want police officers to be engaged, to be pro-active, to respond quickly when there's an issue."
Aidan Buckley, a spokesman for the IIO, said the role of the office is not to limit police but rather enhance policing by ensuring public confidence. "The IIO must investigate to identify if there is any connection between police action/inaction and the death or serious injury," he wrote in an e-mail.
"The mere presence of the IIO on a scene does not suggest officers did anything wrong. Once the IIO concludes that there is no connection between police action/inaction and the death or serious harm, then the IIO will release jurisdiction."
Vancouver police spokesman Constable Brian Montague said the department had safety concerns about administering the injectable naloxone but is open to the nasal spray version. He also acknowledged the hesitation some officers might feel about getting involved and subjecting themselves to the possibility of being investigated.
"The IIO is someone we're going to have a conversation with to see how scenarios might play out," he said. "To be investigated for trying to do the right thing can be stressful, even if it's only for a few days."
Sergeant Judy Bird, a spokeswoman for the Abbotsford Police Department, said the investigations can be "stressful and horrible," but she doesn't think they deter officers from stepping in when needed.
"It's a huge burden, but it's not going to stop us from doing our jobs," she said.
The RCMP in B.C., which did not make a representative available for an interview, said in a statement it is reviewing its policy regarding Mounties carrying and administering naloxone.
Illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. have climbed in recent years, reaching 484 in 2015. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is often cut into drugs and ingested unknowingly, is now detected in more than half of such deaths.