Chief doubles down, doesn't want Hamilton officers carrying naloxone

Chief Eric Girt says stood firm Tuesday in his assessment that paramedics, not police, are the better responders to carry naloxone locally.

Eric Girt stood firm Tuesday on his view that paramedics are the better responders to carry the kits

Chief Eric Girt says stood firm Tuesday in his assessment that paramedics, not police, are the better responders to carry naloxone locally. (Kelly Bennett/CBC)

Even as many of his fellow big-city police chiefs in Ontario roll out lifesaving anti-overdose kits to frontline officers, Hamilton's chief, Eric Girt stood firm Tuesday, reiterating his position that his officers shouldn't carry the kits.

Speaking in Hamilton Tuesday, Chief Bryan Larkin of the Waterloo Regional Police said his force — which paid for naloxone kits before the province's announcement — said his service has used the kits six times on police officers suspecting exposure to fentanyl, and 17 times on "people in crisis" in the community.

Larkin, who is president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, emphasized that the choice to roll out naloxone is a choice for each individual chief to make.

For his service, he said Waterloo responded with funding for naloxone kits to both protect police and to help people in the community.

"We're not proud of this, but we were batting above the provincial average when it came to overdose calls, overdose deaths," he said.

Police in Waterloo have privately tracked suspected opioid overdose deaths and found there were 65 so far this year. But in the numbers kept by the province for 2016, the most recent year available, Hamilton's death total surpasses Waterloo's.

There were 52 opioid deaths in Hamilton last year — a death rate 48 per cent higher than the provincial average.

In Waterloo in the same year, there were 38 deaths.

Paramedics best suited, chief says

Girt said Hamilton police studied naloxone two-and-a-half years ago and concluded paramedics were best suited to carry the treatment. 

Though he said the service will take another look at the idea in light of the province's offer to fund kits for frontline officers.

He said he wants to make sure officers are limiting any exposure to the drug with gloves and masks, and leave diagnosing up to medical professionals.

Hamilton paramedic Heidi Mazelow holds a vial of naloxone, which paramedics use to treat opioid overdoses. A new report shows Brantford has the highest number of opioid admissions to emergency departments in Ontario for areas of more than 150,000 people. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

"What is the medical nature of the emergency?" he said. "So if there's the presumption that naloxone will be a panacea to what is before you, may not be the case. It is a helpful piece. And with the funding that Minister Hoskins has announced, we'll reexamine that piece."

Larkin said Ontario's chiefs, who are meeting in Hamilton this week, are thinking through some complex challenges, like what happens if an officer administers naloxone, a person still dies and the Special Investigations Unit invokes its mandate to investigate the officer.

Overdose scare does nothing to change chief's mind

So far, Ontario services who've deployed or are close to deploying naloxone to frontline officers include the Ontario Provincial Police, the RCMP and local police services in Peterborough, Durham, Barrie, Waterloo, Ottawa and Peel.

"I think we'll probably see the majority of police services in some form look at a piece of deployment," Larkin said.

Girt said even an incident over the weekend where a Hamilton officer suspected he'd been exposed to fentanyl didn't change his mind.

The officer called 9-1-1 and Hamilton Fire Department crews responded. Fire trucks are outfitted with naloxone kits. The officer self-administered naloxone, but the officer ultimately had not been exposed to an opioid so the naloxone did nothing.

"The treatment was ineffective and required further analysis at the hospital to determine what was the cause," he said.

kelly.bennett@cbc.ca

About the Author

Kelly Bennett

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Kelly Bennett is an award-winning reporter who lives in Hamilton. She grew up in Victoria and covered economics and arts as an investigative reporter in San Diego. She loves digging into great stories, hiking and playing the violin. Drop her a line anytime at kelly.bennett@cbc.ca.