A study by a group of B.C. researchers shows that less than half of those who administered Naloxone in the Island Health region also called 911. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Just half of overdose witnesses on Vancouver Island call 911: study

Fear of police a deterrent for calling

A new study shows concerns over police presence could be having potentially fatal consequences amidst the overdose crisis.

A study by a group of B.C. researchers shows that less than half of those who administered Naloxone in the Island Health region also called 911. Out of 201 overdose incidents, 93 called and 101 didn’t.

And of those who specified why they didn’t call, 54 per cent said they had concerns about police presence and 14 per cent said it was because the situation was “under control.”

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But Naloxone is not intended to be used in place of medical assistance.

The SAVE ME Steps to Save a Life, directions administered by the province, advise calling 911 when the victim is unresponsive.

The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, saw researchers analyze more than 2,350 overdose incidents recorded between July 2015 and December 2017, using data from forms filled out by people seeking replacement Naloxone kits at distribution centres across B.C.

Most of the data was collected from Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and Fraser Health (489 and 1,101 overdose forms respectively) and only 201 incidents recorded from Vancouver Island. VCH showed the highest number – 73.2 per cent – of 911 calls during an overdose.

Study co-author Mohammad Karamouzian speculated the higher number of 911 calls made in the Vancouver Coastal region could be a result of the area’s police non-attendance policy, implemented in 2006.

“We think that [the calls] have to do with a policy that has been going on for over 10 years in Vancouver and the culture in place for the cops not to show up unless they are required to under certain circumstances,” Karamouzian said.

“The way I see it is that…everyone is working in a team,” he added. “It is not just the community of people who use drugs, or law enforcement, or the researchers, or the front line staff – it’s something that’s affecting everyone and most of the responses are collective.”

The non-attendance policy was based on Australian research that recognized drug overdoses as medical emergencies and showed less overdose-involved deaths when police couldn’t lay charges for drug use.

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But VPD’s policy went a step further – permitting police to an overdose scene only when they were needed to assist with public safety.

“The overdose response policy was developed to help ensure that those persons overdosing or assisting someone who has overdosed, are not reluctant to contact 911 for fear of police involvement,” said Vancouver Police Department media relations officer Const. Jason Doucette, in an email to Black Press Media.

“The VPD will only attend overdoses where there is a need to ensure the safety of the public or other first responders.”

While all Canadians are protected by the recently enacted Good Samaritan law – which ensures they will not be arrested or charged for drug possession by police if they call 911 to save the life of someone who has overdosed – the study shows all regions outside of VCH have significantly lower rates of 911 calls – the Interior being the lowest with only 39.72 per cent calling for help.

Marilou Gagnon, a Victoria nurse and nursing professor at the University of Victoria, said the implementation of a Canadawide law proves the need for change in the role between police and the overdose crisis.

“Why go to so much length in the creation of a law specifically for overdoses and specifically to protect people from law enforcement if this was not an issue?” she said. “Despite the protection we have given people, that’s not even enough for them to call 911 because that relationship to law enforcement is very strong and very much rooted in negative experiences.”

Gagnon hopes to see a similar policy implemented in Victoria.

“If Vancouver police were able to do it in the epicentre of this crisis, I think Victoria can do it too,” she said. “It does not mean that people will die. It does not mean that cops have not saved lives in Victoria [and] it also does not mean that cops should not carry Naloxone.”

“If their assistance is not required, they should back off. That would filter the calls and send them when they are required only.”

Const. Matthew Rutherford, spokesperson for the Victoria Police Department, says the department already plays a minimal role and shifted its approach from criminal to medical when the crisis began.

Currently, VicPD attends overdose calls when paramedics request their assistance, or when they are closest to the overdose.

“If we are closer than an ambulance, we’re gonna go and we’re going to try to save that person’s life,” Rutherford said. “While VicPD doesn’t have an official policy, it’s been practice … since the crisis started … that paramedics are still the primary responders for these types of calls.”

RELATED: B.C. centre at forefront of treating mental health and addiction together

nina.grossman@blackpress.ca


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