Some Lawmakers Say Some Police Ill-Equipped for Overdoses

May 1, 2016 Updated: May 1, 2016

LANSING, Mich.—A group of 20 lawmakers backs a bill to require more rigorous medical training for police officers, borne of fear that some rural police are not properly equipped to rescue people undergoing heroin or prescription opioid overdoses.

Republican bill sponsor state Rep. Hank Vaupel, a Fowlerville Republican, said current law doesn’t require police to stay up-to-date on medical procedures that can save people from a narcotics overdose. But the organization that develops training standards for the state’s 20 police academies and another that represents police officers say law enforcement are already trained in practices Vaupel’s bill would mandate.

Vaupel said he spoke with two police chiefs that he would not name who don’t require officers in their departments to be trained to do “rescue breathing,” commonly known as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Medical experts say heroin overdose victims often need assisted breathing because the narcotic can shut down the respiratory system. But Vaupel said the two departments are only trained to perform chest compressions. He said he fears that puts lives at risk amid growing concern over opioid abuse.

State data show that heroin-related overdose deaths tripled since 1999. In 2014, the most recent data available, 1,745 people in Michigan died of fatal heroin or opioid painkiller overdoses.

Vaupel said he suspects other small departments also might not stay current on CPR training that includes rescue breathing, which his bill would require. State Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, echoed that concern.

The Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards sets training programs for police in the state, but they don’t require police to renew CPR training. Neither that organization nor the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, which represents the state’s police officers, keeps statewide data showing how many local departments require their officers to renew CPR training.

Jeff Boyd, Livingston County Emergency Medical Services director, said some officers also don’t know they’re supposed to accompany rescue breathing with anti-overdose drugs in some instances. He said he’d like EMS personnel to help train police to administer the drugs, and testified in a House committee on behalf of Vaupel’s measure.

George Basar, legislative director for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police, said he sees the bill as unnecessary because recruits trained in the state’s police academies are already required to learn rescue breathing as part of their basic training.

Wayne Carlson with the state commission that develops those training standards confirmed that. Carlson said police CPR training is based on programs from the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association. All state troopers learn the same techniques, said Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the State Police. Carlson and Basar said they suspect most departments make their officers renew training, but Carlson said it’s possible some don’t.

Michele Wagner of Fowlerville, a constituent in Vaupel’s hometown, helped spark the legislation after her 23-year-old son, Mitchell, died of a fatal opioid overdose the night before Thanksgiving 2014. She said he still had a heartbeat when she found him on the floor of their home, but officers who arrived performed chest compressions without rescue breathing and weren’t carrying Naloxone, a drug that can resuscitate people in an opioid overdose.

Wagner said she thinks her son wouldn’t have died if police had been carrying the drug and helped him breathe.

“I don’t know how I get through,” Wagner said. “One day at a time. That’s all I can do. I don’t know. I go to therapy. I do community service, try to take it to the community and talk about it.”

Fowlerville Police Chief Thomas Couling confirmed the date and cause of Mitchell Wagner’s death, but declined to say whether officers performed rescue breathing while trying to revive him.

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Couling said as a general rule, his officers don’t perform rescue breathing anymore.

“The way they teach you to do CPR these days, is by compressions,” he said, noting that all of his department’s officers are Red Cross certified in CPR.

A spokesman from the American Red Cross said they have programs that include rescue breathing and ones that don’t.

“She’s a grieving mother,” Couling said. “And this has been very difficult for everybody. And as much as we care for her and we do, we’ve done everything that can be done in this case.”

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