Anchorage Police Chief Michael Kerle said this week that the police department will reconsider its longstanding policy of officers not carrying naloxone, a drug that can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose that might otherwise be fatal.
His statement comes as the Anchorage Police Department has faced growing pressure from advocates to change its policy on naloxone — often referred to by its most common brand name, Narcan — amid a rise in overdose deaths in the city, state and country. Driving the increase: fentanyl, which is a highly potent synthetic opioid that can be deadly even in extremely small amounts.
Sandy Snodgrass, whose 22-year-old son, Bruce, died of fentanyl poisoning last year, said she was “very grateful for (Kerle) for considering changing the policy.”
She was among a group of demonstrators who gathered near APD headquarters earlier this week to call on police to change their guidance.
“The goal is to save lives. That’s the bottom line. And I think he wants that too,” Snodgrass said Thursday.
While most other major law enforcement agencies in the state have their officers carry naloxone, Anchorage police officers do not carry the overdose reversal drug.
Instead, Anchorage’s policy calls for officers to perform CPR when someone has overdosed and isn’t breathing normally. Responding Anchorage Fire Department paramedics who typically arrive within minutes of police assess the person’s condition and are the ones who administer naloxone if needed. APD cited quick response times by police officers and paramedics as part of the reasoning behind its policy.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kerle said the police department will consider a change.
“Going forward, we will probably have a change in our status on whether we’re carrying Narcan or not,” Kerle said during a Public Safety Committee meeting.
During the meeting, Kerle referred to a Daily News article published Wednesday that included an interview with Dr. Mike Levy, Anchorage EMS areawide medical director with the Anchorage Fire Department.
“I just read the article, and (Dr. Levy) now says he doesn’t have a problem with us carrying it anymore. So we’re going to evaluate whether we should carry it,” Kerle said.
Levy advises the fire department on its policies, and he also spoke with a previous police chief on the pros and cons of officers administering Narcan when the police department’s current policies were being developed. He told the Daily News on Saturday that he hadn’t discussed the issue with Kerle.
While he doesn’t work for the police department in an official capacity, Levy is considered to be APD’s medical adviser, Kerle said.
“He has always advised us he did not think it was a good idea for the Anchorage police to carry Narcan because we have a great co-response from the fire department,” Kerle said.
Levy told the Daily News that he has no issue with Anchorage police officers carrying naloxone, either to administer or distribute — as long as officers were properly trained, and as long as administering CPR remained their priority, too. He said he’d support such a move “if it was the wish of the police department leadership to do that.”
CPR cannot reverse an overdose, but vitally, it can make sure a person continues to get oxygen to their heart and brain, which Levy said is extremely important once someone has gone into cardiac arrest.
Kerle said the department plans to “start working on a policy where we will get further recommendations from Dr. Levy. I’ll make sure it’s coordinated through city legal.” He added that he’d “already coordinated with the union; they don’t have a problem as long as we properly train our officers and instruct them on how to use it.”
“It all depends on what our medical advice is from Dr. Levy,” he said.
The police department’s policy on Narcan hasn’t changed even as overdose deaths in Anchorage have nearly tripled since 2018, largely due to the prevalence of fentanyl, which counterfeit drugs are often laced with. Many who have died after ingesting the drug did not know fentanyl was involved.
Statewide, 245 overdose deaths were reported last year, and six out of 10 were linked to fentanyl, according to Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer.
In light of the rise in overdoses, health officials have encouraged Alaskans to keep naloxone on hand in case of an overdose.
Kerle said Wednesday that there are multiple barriers to putting a new policy in place for the department — including training, cost and safety concerns.
“Everyone’s coming out of the woodwork to give free Narcan right now. Once that’s over, Narcan is like, $37.50 a dose, and we need to come up with a funding source,” he said. “It’s going to be expensive, and the majority of that’s going to get thrown away because we’re not going to use it.”
Snodgrass, who’s advocated for an APD policy change, suggested in an interview that police officers could distribute naloxone kits nearing expiration to the public a few months before they expire.
During the meeting, Kerle also spoke about the return of approximately 600 naloxone kits that were sent to the police department from Project HOPE, a program of the state’s Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention that assembles and distributes the kits.
APD returned the kits so they could be used elsewhere because they don’t have a policy in place for officers to carry Narcan, Kerle said.
“It’s ludicrous to think that the police department would keep 600 doses when we couldn’t use it, and not give it back to get it into the hands of people who actually are trained to use it,” Kerle said.
Snodgrass said that “Project Hope was ready to train his officers immediately upon delivery of those 600 kits.”
“It’s a 15-minute online video training available to anyone,” she said. “I’ve taken it myself to become a Narcan distributor. So he could have trained his officers within days of receiving those kits, and he could have given them to them.”
While the timeline for when a policy change could happen wasn’t clear, Snodgrass said she was hopeful it would happen soon — and that officers could “begin carrying Narcan just as quickly as possible.”
Alaskans seeking naloxone can order a free kit to be delivered to their in-state address at iknowmine.org. That website also includes an opioid overdose response training that takes about 15 minutes to complete.