The Duluth, Minnesota, Police Department and partners are coming at an existing problem with a new solution.
Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force is a multijurisdictional task force composed of multiple members from local and national agencies and has implemented practices to take an illegal firearm and keep dangerous substances off the streets.
Task force Commander Jeff Kazel details the size and scope of the problem.
“I started this job as a commander in 2014,” he said. “I knew we knew we had a problem, but we never really had any hard evidence that showed its severity.”
That all changed in 2015, he said, when the medical department of health came out with their statistics for overdose deaths for all the counties the task force members serve. He started pouring over the data and learned St. Louis County had the highest overdose rate per capita in the state. For context, this was higher than Hennepin County and other larger population centers.
Why St. Louis County and why now? Kazel said it’s a perfect storm of factors. Poverty, lack of economic opportunity and access to opioids through the hospital system both play a part.
Despite this grim picture, Kazel said the task force is making progress. Though the name of the initiative has changed since its inception about 20 years ago, it is getting recognized for its work. In 2018, it received an initial grant to fund a comprehensive opioid abuse program.
“We ended up hiring what we call an opioid tech, but it’s really a peer recovery specialist. And (then) we started following up on all the reports of overdoses that we had in our task force area.”
Kazel said task force members knew a lot of overdoses were happening because they were responding to them, often using the drug NARCAN to save them. From here, they started to follow up with the patients, offering them services and getting them to pursue comprehensive assessments to get into treatment.
While it’s difficult to quantify success, Kazel said there are certain markers that bode well. For instance, the amount of NARCAN has risen due to the fact the task force is supplying other law enforcement agencies with life-saving intervention.
“Just with our police department alone, we’re at 180 (lives) saved as a result of using NARCAN,” he said.
Speaking of departments, while Kazel said other agencies had some initial reservations about the approach, their skepticism has waned. He attributes that to selecting good hires and the task force’s excellent job communicating with the population.
“Specifically, they’ve made it easier for us to get comprehensive assessments by adding a licensed alcohol and drug counselor to the team. This has streamlined the recovery process for patients,” he said.
In his words, “I think we’ve had better results in that people are deciding whether they want treatment or help. The fact that we’re able to give it to them right away just makes it more convenient and more successful.”
Kazel acknowledges it takes a village to address such a weighty problem as opioid addiction. Fortunately, the task force has strong relationships throughout the community.
“We have a really close relationship with the jail,” he said. “The assessments come from the hospitals. They’re starting to get on board and to the point where they know of the good work that our teams are doing. So they’re giving direct referrals for people they know (who) would probably want help and have agreed to have contact with their team. So, we’re working with many different agencies and the community to expand (the program) in our region.”
Beyond the focus on drugs, Kazel draws attention to the violence that often goes hand in glove with drug dealing and use. That’s why the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is a member of the task force.
“When you’re talking about money, people are going to protect their investment — an illegal investment,” he said. “And people are prone to using violence to protect their (interests).”
Case in point, Kazel said they confiscated more than 400 firearms during his tenure and expects that number to rise. Also, looking to the future, he said hope is on the horizon that the state will get $50 million over nine years from the settlement of a multistate opioid lawsuit against drug maker Purdue Pharma and its controlling family.
“That money is starting to come in,” he explained. “I think what I would say to the other municipalities is, think about what you’re going to use that money for, because the need for treatment facilities for getting people help is great. We expect some good things to come.”