Using Opioid Settlement Cash for Police Gear Like Squad Cars and Scanners Sparks Debate

by | Oct 23, 2023 | Health

Policing expenses mount quickly: $25,000 for a law enforcement conference about fentanyl in Colorado; $18,000 for technology to unlock cellphones in Southington, Connecticut; $2,900 for surveillance cameras and to train officers and canines in New Lexington, Ohio. And in other communities around the country, hundreds of thousands for vehicles, body scanners, and other equipment.

In these cases and many others, state and local governments are turning to a new means to pay those bills: opioid settlement cash.

This money — totaling more than $50 billion across 18 years — comes from national settlements with more than a dozen companies that made, sold, or distributed opioid painkillers, including Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen, and Walmart, which were accused of fueling the epidemic that addicted and killed millions.

Directing the funds to police has triggered difficult questions about what the money was meant for and whether such spending truly helps save lives.

Terms vary slightly across settlements, but, in most cases, state and local governments must spend at least 85% of the cash on “opioid remediation.”

Paving roads or building schools is out of the question. But if a new cruiser helps officers reach the scene of an overdose, does that count?

Answers are being fleshed out in real time.

The money shouldn’t be spent on “things that have never really made a difference,” like arresting low-level drug dealers or throwing people in jail when they need treatment, said Brandon del Pozo, who served as a police officer for 23 years and is currently an assistant professor at Brown University researching policing and public health. At the same time, “you can’t just cut the police out of it. Nor would you want to.”

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