Peter Sadler looked like a lost member of the Beastie Boys, but as soon as he spoke it was obvious that he was a cop.
As we sat in the hotel lobby at the 2018 National Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans, I tried to reconcile his attire—a black DOPE Project hoodie and Utah Naloxone cap—with the straight posture and authoritative voice of a 20-year law enforcement veteran.
Sadler worked two decades on state and federal narcotics-based assignments in Salt Lake City, Utah. Back then, he was a champion of the drug war. The repetition of drug-related calls for larceny, assault and breaking-and-entering frustrated and jaded him. Much of his ire, however, was directed at drug users and homeless people rather than at the circumstances surrounding them.
A few years ago, Sadler’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. During her illness, Peter worked his regular shift as a police officer during the day, but spent each night at her bedside, listening to hospital machines beep and watching his mother’s face as she battled death.
On one of these nights, he describes an epiphany.
“I felt angry that I had wronged people.”
If his mother was to survive this, but the cancer came back, would people say, “Mrs. Sadler, you didn’t chemo hard enough. You didn’t try hard enough”? Would they deny her a second chance at treatment?
No, he decided. Yet that is how people who use drugs problematically are treated if they relapse after a period of abstinence.
He started to question some of his preconceived notions, and the stigma he held towards people who used drugs. He looked back on his assignments. Had they done more harm than good? Was there another way?
“I felt angry that I had wronged people,” he told me.
Sadler retired from law enforcement in April 2018. He then began working for Utah Naloxone, where he had volunteered during his last couple years as an officer. Along with Medical Director Dr. Jennifer Plumb, Sadler travels the state spreading the word about overdose prevention and naloxone access to community groups, medical communities and first responders.
Throughout our interview he consistently referred to drug users as “these people.”
Listening to Sadler’s story, I felt mixed emotions. I could understand his past emotional burn-out and anger towards drug users. In my mid-20s, I served as a case manager for refugees in Raleigh, North Carolina. It still haunts me to remember how quickly my compassion eroded under the onslaught of crisis calls at all hours of the night.
But although it was heartening to hear Sadler admit his culpability in the damage caused by decades of guerilla tactics against people who use drugs, his transformation is far from complete.
Throughout our interview he consistently referred to drug users as “these people,” as if to emphasize that as far as he was concerned, they were still “the other.” More than once he said that “these people” and law enforcement needed to put the past behind them and move forward—as if a few cops saying “Sorry, we fucked up; let’s be friends now” should erase decades of brutality and trauma.
To me—and to many others in harm reduction—Sadler represents a complex dilemma. He isn’t just any former police officer, but one who previously embraced the War on Drugs and harbored deep disdain for drug users. Yet here he was at a harm reduction conference, admitting that he had been wrong and trying to learn a new way to thinking. He straddles a wide, uncomfortable fence—far from where he needed to be, but also far from where he started.
Does that meet the criteria for “any positive change”?
The question of what role, if any, law enforcement should occupy in harm reduction has plagued me for years. During my tenure as a lobbyist with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, we often partnered with law enforcement to advocate for syringe exchange programs, expand access to naloxone, and implement diversion programs. We were both lauded and criticized for these alliances, which undoubtedly accelerated our progress—and even within the organization, the topic has caused dissent.
During the National Harm Reduction Conference, I resolved to collect opinions on whether harm reduction should collaborate with law enforcement. Over four days I interviewed over a dozen people of various backgrounds, ages, races, genders and geographic homes. Of all the questions I have asked in my years as a reporter, I don’t think any has sparked a more diverse range of answers.
“It is problematic to have police involved, because they are the foot soldiers for the drug war.”
Some of my interviewees visibly flinched at the mention of police and dismissed the possibility of collaboration between law enforcement and people who use drugs.
“It is problematic to have police involved, because they are the foot soldiers for the drug war,” said Maurice Byrd, a therapist at Harm Reduction Therapy Center in San Francisco. Byrd said that his center had trained police on harm reduction for a couple of years, but decided to stop due to credibility issues with clients. “I need people to be able to trust me that I am not talking to police,” he explained.
Several people pointed out that as soon as law enforcement gets involved in harm reduction, money and resources that should go to community-based organizations get funneled to police departments instead.
“It pisses me off that as soon as law enforcement started to carry naloxone, all the funds started going to officers instead of the community,” said Dr. Plumb, who works with Sadler. She also believes that collaboration between law enforcement and harm reduction is a practical necessity, but points out that such collaborations should not come at the cost of shifting resources away from communities.
The topic of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs was particularly polarizing. Some view LEAD programs, in which police can choose to divert low-level offenders to drug treatment and social services instead of jail, as a step in the right direction. Others say that LEAD programs expand police power and force people who use drugs to have repeated contact with a group that is a source of trauma and violence to many.
“I think it’s problematic whenever police are the access point for treatment,” said Byrd.
I have seen these measures bring real positive change to marginalized people’s lives, when refusing to work with police would have left them to suffer.
My own thoughts about police, harm reduction and programs like LEAD have evolved over the years. I was once eager to form positive relationships with police. Like many people, I am sick of polarization and disgusted with the us-versus-them mentality that fixates on differences and upholds remote, ideal-world scenarios over real-world improvements in people’s lives.
So when the first whispers of “we can’t arrest our way out of this problem” reached my ears, I was anxious to make new friends. In North Carolina I formed part of a team that brought the first LEAD program to the South, and worked closely with police to help legalize syringe exchange programs. I have seen these measures bring real positive change to marginalized people’s lives, when refusing to work with police would have left them to suffer.
Lately though, my enthusiasm for collaboration between harm reduction and police has cooled. There is so much cause to doubt the sincerity of many pledges not to arrest our way out of drug problems—including, for example the disturbing rise of drug-induced homicide laws. And in some communities I see the LEAD program as premature, since many LEAD officers have no concept of harm reduction beyond a short PowerPoint training.
Even now, I struggle with how to approach friends and allies in law enforcement with these concerns—balancing the desire to keep lines of communication open and the need to express frustration.
But I have not given up hope.
Author and activist bell hooks once asked: “How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
This, to me, is the question that lies at the heart of any interactions between law enforcement and harm reductionists. Building a relationship need not mean instantly forgiving decades of brutality. It need not mean rushing heedlessly to form partnerships and launch programs—nor ignoring the trauma that interactions between drug users and police have caused and still cause.
If we fail to work in reality, if we fail to do whatever we can to reduce the harms of policing, we fail as harm reductionists.
The issue of how, if at all, to engage with cops is complex and variable from organization to organization, place to place. But I do think it needs to happen.
Whatever we think in theory of police abolition or the fuck-the-police attitude, however aware we are of police killings and brutality, the police do exist and will continue to play a prominent role in our society for the foreseeable future. If we fail to work in reality, if we fail to do whatever we can to reduce the harms of policing, we fail as harm reductionists.
We need to show law enforcement that we practice what we preach: non-judgment, meeting people where they’re at, and embracing positive change, however small.
I’ve heard some people criticize cops like Peter Sadler for only finding their consciences after they retired. I understand the frustration. But we should also reflect on how hard it is for any of us to change when surrounded by a message that is constantly reinforced. The inability to see beyond one’s own circle or viewpoint is not unique to cops.
I see it in harm reduction too: the herd mentality, the fear to voice an opinion that might be met with dissent. It is the same phenomenon that keeps many within harm reduction from challenging the hypocrisies rife within our own movement. All organizations—even ones that preach openness and tolerance—have systems that allow duplicity and quash dissent.
Many members of law enforcement harbor strains of doubt about the work they do. They see that they are arresting the same people for the same reasons, over and over again. They see that locking up one drug dealer means another fills his place. Many wonder if there is another way.
But right now, cops whose consciences are starting to tug have few places to turn. Their colleagues are often hostile towards anyone who questions the status quo. The harm reduction movement, in large part, considers them the enemy.
No wonder then, that doubts are brushed aside and orders followed. Seeds of change need nourishment; they need to grow until the voice that says “this is wrong” becomes louder than the voice that says ”this is the way things are.”
Among the people I interviewed, even the ones who insisted that police culture is inherently corrupt were willing to admit that there are some well-intentioned officers. I think that if we can agree that there are some good cops, we can help to embolden them and help their numbers to grow.
Policy can change fast. But cultures and values change person by person, as old ways die out and new blood takes the helm.
In this process of change, the Peter Sadlers of the world, stepping outside their comfort zones, are the messengers, because people trust others from their own group. The challenge for the rest of us is to encourage these couriers while holding them accountable—so that their message, though tailored to its new audience, rings true.