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A naloxone kit is displayed in Vancouver on Nov. 13, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As a national opioid crisis wages on, Toronto police have decided to equip their downtown front-line officers with the opioid antidote naloxone.

"This is about life and death, and that's what we signed up to do," Chief Mark Saunders told the Toronto Police Services Board at their meeting Thursday.

Chief Saunders was tasked last year with submitting a report to the board on how the service might go about deploying the antidote, which can be used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

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It's an operational issue – and not one the police service needs permission from the board to implement. But it is one that Chief Saunders stressed on Thursday that he was keen for their input on.

His plan – one that was supported by the board – is to start with a "strategic" deployment of naloxone to about 1,000 officers – including all frontline officers in downtown divisions, where supervised injection sites are located, as well as supervisors in surrounding divisions and select units.

Chief Saunders cautioned that there are a number of continuing issues at play. His primary concern is around liability for officers who do administer naloxone to someone having an overdose. In cases where the person dies, officers could be subject to investigation by the province's police watchdog, the Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

While the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police has pushed the SIU to exempt officers from having to report to them in these cases – as the Independent Investigations Office in British Columbia agreed last year to do – the SIU has consistently said it will continue to invoke its mandate in these cases.

On Thursday, TPS Superintendent Scott Baptist emphasized the "significant or potentially significant" administrative effect that these investigations could have on the service, and the mountain of paperwork he argues it could create.

According to Chief Saunders's report, police arrive to overdose calls ahead of firefighters and paramedics (both of whom already carry naloxone) in just 2.7 per cent of cases. Board member Uppala Chandrasekera suggested this makes the SIU concern less urgent.

The adoption of naloxone kits has varied among police services across the country. In British Columbia, where the opioid crisis has hit hardest, police in Vancouver and neighbouring Surrey have made the kits available to all officers.

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However, Vancouver police have a policy not to attend overdose calls – and as a result, the primary reason that police carry naloxone is in case of accidental exposure to drugs such as fentanyl or carfentanil (drugs so potent that mere grains are enough to be lethal.)

"That said, if an officer who is carrying naloxone happens to come across someone they believe is suffering from an overdose, then they obviously won't just stand there and watch the person perish," former Vancouver Police Department spokesperson Constable Brian Montague told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail in December.

Nick Boyce, director of the Ontario HIV and Substance Use Training program, supports Toronto police's decision to carry naloxone – but he hopes they might follow Vancouver's lead and stop responding to overdose calls when unnecessary.

While Ontario passed Good Samaritan legislation last year that provides immunity from drug or breach of probation charges to anyone seeking emergency assistance for an overdose, he said even the fear of police showing up can be a "huge barrier" to people with addictions needing to call 911.

"They're already afraid to go to the hospital and get the care they might need," Mr. Boyce said

While Ontario passed Good Samaritan legislation last year that provides immunity from drug or breach of probation charges to anyone seeking emergency assistance for an overdose, he said even the fear of police showing up can be a "huge barrier" to people with addictions needing to call 911.

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"They're already afraid to go to the hospital and get the care they might need," Mr. Boyce said. He said he has heard of incidents of police officers showing up to hospital, and said he has seen cruisers parked out of supervised injection sites in Toronto.

In Ontario, police services in Ottawa, London, Kitchener-Waterloo and Peel Region have all distributed the kits to their officers. Others, including York, Durham and Halton Region police services, have issued the antidote to select officers.

The timeline for the Toronto Police Services deployment of naloxone is unclear. Supt. Bishop said they could secure an inventory of the antidote within a few weeks – and the service could begin training officers within a few months, once protocols are established. The Chief was asked to report back to the board in April with an update.

The police services board also approved on Thursday to expand the deployment of tasers to front-line officers, with strict accountability and reporting caveats. Toronto is the last large police service in Ontario to adopt the less-lethal weapon.

Mayor John Tory said he is confident the weapons will save lives, noting that there are likely "people we could name" that would be alive if there had been greater deployment of tasers earlier.

The federal health minister says the government is working with a variety of organizations and levels of government to find solutions to the opioid crisis. Ginette Petitpas Taylor says Ottawa will boost treatment options for drug users. The Canadian Press
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect name for a Toronto Police Service superintendent. He is Scott Baptist, not Scott Bishop as published. This is a corrected version.
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