Training, change in tactics can reduce dangers to police officers handling drugs

PHOENIX – The case of two Phoenix police officers who were hospitalized this week after accidentally being exposed to a white powder comes as police departments are training officers and changing their policies on how to handle suspicious substances.

The unidentified officers were hospitalized Tuesday for a suspected fentanyl exposure, according to media reports. One officer felt ill after some of the white substance “flipped” on his face at a Phoenix police substation. But a toxicology report showed it was cocaine, not fentanyl, and the officers were later released.

The opioid crisis has led to a White House advisory to first responders on how to handle suspicious substances in the field. The chance of officers being accidentally exposed to fentanyl looms with the powerful synthetic opioid’s growing presence on the street, said Shannon Scheel, drug education director of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office – who calls fentanyl the “new bad drug.”

Because it is “supposedly 50 times more potent than heroin,” said Sgt. Ronald Elcock, a Tempe Police Department spokesman, extra precautions now have to be taken when officers encounter any powder suspected to be narcotics.

Police departments across the country, including Tempe and Glendale, are changing their policies and training, including no longer conducting tests of potential illegal drugs in the field, Scheel said.

Dr. Jerry Snow, a toxicologist at Banner-University Medical Center in Phoenix, said simple precautions can protect law-enforcement officers. Fentanyl can not absorbed through the skin, but the risk of accidental exposure heightens if it’s airborne.

The medical community has used fentanyl safely for decades, Snow said, with the risk of handling lowered by such precautionary measures as wearing gloves, not touching the eyes, nose or mouth and washing with soap and warm water if fentanyl comes into contact with skin.

The drug should not be handled in an enclosed space or where the drug could become airborne, said Snow, who also recommended that police departments avoid field testing drugs to prevent accidental exposure.

Scheel said Tempe police and other metro Phoenix departments stopped testing suspected narcotics in the field to reduce the chance of accidental exposure. Instead, Elcock said, Tempe police sends suspected narcotics to the Arizona Department of Public Safety to be tested.

The Glendale Police Department is training officers to address exposure risks, according to a statement from the department.

– Video by Bryce Newberry/Cronkite News

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