Share story

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — It was a routine traffic stop in South Carolina. A Charleston County deputy pulled a driver over and confiscated money.

As the officer opened a bill to process it for evidence, a white powdery substance was inside. Her eyes started to water and she was dizzy. The powder had traces of the painkiller fentanyl. It was a stark reminder of the dangers officers in the field face from opioids.

Fentanyl is a synthetic drug 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. It can enter the system by being ingested, inhaled, injected or absorbed through the skin. A report by the Drug Enforcement Administration found it only takes 2 to 3 milligrams of fentanyl, about the size of five to seven grains of salt, for the drug to cause harm.

“It’s hard enough for these officers and law enforcement to stay safe and keep the public safe,” Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman Rusty Payne said. “This just adds another layer of difficulty to a really hard job, a really dangerous job.”

Police departments’ response to the dangers of possible exposure to fentanyl has become a part of the opioid crisis sweeping the nation. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared it a public health emergency, creating an Emergency Opioid Response Team last year.

“It helps to continue streamlining the efforts made against the opioid epidemic and ensures that crucial information is being shared,” said Lexington County Sherriff’s spokeswoman Colby Gallagher whose agency is a part of the task force.

In Lexington County, deputies used to test substances to see if they were illegal drugs in the field, but now it’s too risky, Gallagher said. The department stopped field testing last year.

“We have them safely package it, and they have to wear gloves,” said Gallagher, who added it is much safer for chemists to test in their labs where evidence can go through more rigorous testing.

Eliminating field testing has also helped the department’s budget. “If anything, the department saves money since we no longer have to buy and stock field tests for every road deputy,” Gallagher said.

Lexington County deputies are trained to determine if they have probable cause that a subject has an illegal substance. “The process stays the same whether or not the substance is field tested, so this would not cause any additional time behind bars for an arrested subject,” she said.

In 2016, more than 20,000 people died from synthetic opioids in the U.S. This number includes overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and prescription drugs. In South Carolina in 2015, more people were killed in opioid-related overdoses (594) than homicides (311), according to the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services.

“I would liken it to what we saw during the crack epidemic in the late 80s and early 90s,” said Louis Dekmar, a 40-year law enforcement veteran and president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “But I have not seen the social economic policing consequences that we see today.”

Dekmar is also police chief in LaGrange, Georgia, and said he only allows certain trained officers to scenes where they suspect fentanyl.

And training can quickly end up out of date. Now officers are finding fentanyl mixed with other opioids like heroin.

“Part of the issue is synthetic opioids have changed numerous times over the last couple of years,” Charleston County detective Michael Knox said.

All it takes is for one deputy to have a medical crisis after coming in contact with the drugs to get the attention of every officer on the force.

“We’re always concerned about it. I’m sure the whole nation is going through it,” Charleston County Sheriff’s spokesman Capt. Roger Antonio said. “During an investigation, deputies may unexpectedly come across drugs that are not only illegal but may also pose a safety threat to themselves.”