empty drug baggie highlighting police fentanyl overdoses

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EXCLUSIVE: Air conditioning and twisted mask straps: Inside the dubious excuses cops make when they ‘overdose’ on fentanyl

The Daily Dot reviewed hundreds of police records about the incidents.

 

Rebecca Caraway

Tech

Dec. 13, 2022, was a normal night on duty for Officer Courtney Bannick of the Tavares, Florida police, at least until she embarked on what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. 

According to Bannick, after finding a folded-up dollar bill containing a white powder, she began experiencing shortness of breath, felt lightheaded, and lost energy before her fellow officers found her and administered Narcan. 

Bannick went viral for the video featuring her reaction to the exposure, continuing a current trend of law enforcement having severe, dramatic responses when coming into contact with fentanyl. 

Multiple news outlets reported on Bannick’s exposure claiming she “nearly died.” 

However, in the aftermath, her fellow officers didn’t seem to have quite the same level of concern. 

Hours after this incident, her partner went on the department’s Slack to talk about Bannick’s exposure. 

“Three shots of narcan and an ambulance ride later, she’s doing fine, and should return to duty Friday,” he wrote via Slack. “She was released from Waterman around 0500 and is at home, bored out of her skull.” 

Bored out of her skull just hours after supposedly nearly dying, Bannick returned to work just two days later. 

This is just one of the more recent viral incidents where a law enforcement officer has had a severe reaction after coming into contact with what may be fentanyl. But as Mahaney’s words show, despite media hyperbole, the incidents don’t seem to involve the same kind of panic departments present to the media. 

The Tavares Police Department did not release the results of the testing on the substance Bannick allegedly inhaled to the Daily Dot. As of today, no one has been charged for fentanyl possession.

Medical experts have long questioned these stories, noting that fentanyl can’t affect a person if they touch it or even if it becomes airborne.

It’s even harder to believe the stories when results come back and what officers encountered wasn’t even fentanyl.  

The Daily Dot obtained hundreds of records from law enforcement agencies across the country containing first-hand accounts from officers on fentanyl exposure, field test results, lab results, communications, and safety policies. 

In the records the Daily Dot analyzed, officers experienced symptoms after being downwind from the drug, when an air conditioner turned on while they were wearing masks, and when touching pills while wearing gloves. In many instances, even where police were hospitalized, substances weren’t tested, outside of notoriously unreliable field tests

Other times the substances came back as cocaine and meth.

An unreliable test and an unlikely method of exposure appear to be what happened in Wisconsin.

In Rice Lake, a city of just under 10,000 people, Officer Joshua Eckes responded to a traffic stop and began searching the vehicle with his K-9 on Nov. 12, 2019. According to police, the suspects had been known to carry fentanyl. During the search, another officer found a tin with a white powdered substance. According to Eckes, he saw “​​[His partner] to have the tin tilted down and could observe the white substance to be falling out of the metal tin.” 

Eckes was downwind when the substance fell out of the tin, but does not state how far he was from it. 

Shortly after, Eckes returned to his car and began to experience what he said were side effects of fentanyl exposure. He experienced a “coughing sensation” and had trouble breathing, Eckes told the Daily Dot.

“I then began to cough as I entered my squad car. Upon sitting down it seemed that my lungs were not expanding or filling up with air. I have never experienced a sensation like this. I began to feel light headed and nauseous,” Eckes wrote in an incident report obtained by the Daily Dot. 

Eckes was outside when exposed, which experts say shouldn’t have caused an overdose.

“If you’re in a confined area, where you might breathe in fentanyl, or any opioid in a quantity, there’s some plausibility,” professor Nancy Campbell said. “If you are outside and downwind and not in a confined area, that doesn’t seem plausible to me at all.”

Campbell is a science technology studies professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. She focuses on drug history and has written books on policies around drugs and overdoses. 

Campbell said that even though law enforcement receives proper training and education around fentanyl, many still believe they can overdose through physical contact. 

“Even though the training is designed to show you that you really can’t, we have seen a lot of incidents of law enforcement having panic responses,” Campbell said. 

After Eckes was exposed, paramedics arrived on scene and gave him four doses of Narcan. He experienced no lingering effects and stayed at the hospital for seven hours. 

Eckes experiencing a fentanyl overdose is additionally unlikely because, in lab reports obtained by the Daily Dot, no fentanyl was found in the substances that were tested.

The substance in the tin was methamphetamine. Others were visibly consistent with prescription drugs that contain Gabapentin, Fluoxetine, and Diazepam, all of which are used to relieve pain, anxiety, and depression.

Eckes told the Daily Dot that he is unaware of what substances were sent to get tested and told the Daily Dot that not every substance gets sent for testing in these cases.

The Daily Dot reached out to the Rice Lake Police Department, who said there was nothing in writing to confirm Eckes was told about the lab reports relating to this incident, meaning he may have never been informed he didn’t overdose. 

Rice Lake did not respond to requests about whether any suspects had been charged with fentanyl possession.

In Eckes’ case, as well as other cases reviewed by the Daily Dot, a field test would be positive for fentanyl but the lab test would often have different results. 

Eckes told the Daily Dot that the rise of fentanyl has been “truly scary” and that he has seen a huge increase of fentanyl usage within the last three years. 

“It’s something law enforcement had to adapt to,” Eckes said. 

However, it may not be something law enforcement has to adapt to but rather confront their understanding and fear of. 

An incident in Fredericksburg had similar oddities, including a masked officer overdosing an hour after they left a crime scene. 

After being called to a scene of an overdose at a motel in the Virginia town, three officers were sent to the hospital for fentanyl exposure.

While wearing gloves and a respirator and responding to the call, Officer Christopher Tiernan was in the motel room with two suspects when, according to police, the air-conditioning kicked in and “loose powder had become airborne.” Tiernan was in the room for an hour-and-a-half as he took photos of the scene. 

The man and woman staying in the motel room didn’t let the officers search the room, so Tiernan returned to the police station while he waited for a search warrant to be approved. 

While reviewing the pictures from the scene back at the station, Tiernan began feeling “light headed, dizzy, numbness, and tingling” in his fingers. He told his sergeant that he was feeling light headed and was given Narcan. He then took a shower before being sent to the hospital.

Officer Paul Chewning aided Tiernan, then returned to the scene. After he returned, another cop, Officer Jonathan Piersol, was still securing the room. According to the records, Piersol began to feel the “effects of fentanyl exposure.” Chewning took Piersol out of the room and gave him “life saving aid.”

In body camera footage of the incident, it’s clear that Officer Piersol is already informed of the first overdose when he begins to feel unwell, despite being in the room for an extended period of time with his respirator on. The video was shared with the CDC for a presentation on the proper use of personal protection equipment. The caption on the video blames a twisted head strap for Piersol’s possible exposure.

Piersol was then decontaminated and sent to the hospital.

The fire department advised Chewing that the room was now a hazmat situation. Chewing was then also decontaminated and sent to the emergency room.

The Daily Dot reached out to the Fredericksburg Police Department to see if they had an explanation for how the officers had a reaction despite wearing a mask or why officer Piersol and Tiernan had experienced delayed reactions

The police department did not respond to the Daily Dot’s questions.

According to the records from Fredericksburg, samples of what the officers thought they OD’ed on were given rush testing with results returning days later. A tan powder found on the scene “did not contain controlled substances.” A white powder found on a table in the motel room came back as N-Ethylpentylone which is a synthetic cathinone sold as “molly.”  

Another set of samples were destroyed before they could be tested.

Additional evidence that was later sent to the state lab contained fentanyl, alongside heroin, Molly, methamphetamine, and cocaine. Fredricksburg did not respond to question about why a second set of lab tests were done.

One suspect involved in this incident was convicted of five counts of possessing illegal drugs and two counts of possessing illegal drugs with the intent to distribute; they were sentenced to 19 years in prison. The other suspect was charged with seven counts of illegal drug possession and was sentenced to 12 years and nine months. 

Professor Campbell explained that while it’s not impossible to overdose in this way, it is very unlikely. 

“It’s pretty far-fetched, especially if someone is properly masked, there should be no danger whatsoever,” Campbell said.

Campbell pointed out that people who work in air-conditioned factories with fentanyl do not experience these kinds of reactions. 

The main symptom of an opioid overdose is experiencing difficulty breathing. In one case the Daily Dot investigated, an officer fainted after coming into contact with fentanyl. 

Professor Campbell says that these videos of officer fainting have contributed to the panic and misinformation around fentanyl.

In early 2022, Kansas City Police officer Dallas Thompson collapsed after coming into contact with what he believed to be fentanyl. Thompson found pills that were wrapped in paper when his captain recognized them to be what he thought was fentanyl. 

According to the records, Thompson found blue bills stamped M-30, which is used for both oxycodone and clorazepate. 

An officer saw that the “pills were blue circular pills with the impression ‘M 30.’” 

The DEA has circulated warnings that counterfeit M-30 pills have been shown to contain fentanyl. The pills were found in possession of a burglary suspect police were searching.

The suspect was booked into Wyandotte County jail on a 48-hour felony hold. The Daily Dot was unable to find charges filed against the suspect regarding fentanyl possession. 

“I instantly recognized that those pills were more than likely suspected fentanyl based on officer safety advisory.”

Records show that Thompson was wearing gloves while examining the pills and then carefully slipped them off after his captain warned him about the pills.  

Just minutes later, Thompson began to feel shortness of breath and showed signs of an overdose before he collapsed and was then administered 5 doses of Narcan. 

Kansas City Police declined to release lab results to the Daily Dot or discuss charges against the suspect. The suspect was booked into Wyandotte County jail on a 48-hour felony hold. The Daily Dot was unable to find charges filed against the suspect regarding fentanyl possession. 

Campbell says that these incidents are more of a panic response that an overdose and videos of these reactions contribute to public fear. Campbell also says that law enforcement uses these videos to gain sympathy from the public. 

“This is one way of dramatizing the dangers that they’re facing to the public,” Campbell said. “It’s one way of trying to convey to people that they feel that they’re being directly placed in danger.” 

On Jan. 26, 2022, in Orlando, Florida, Chief Orlando Rolon tweeted that three officers were transported to the hospital for possible fentanyl exposure and three other officers drove themselves due to possible exposure. 

Later the department corrected themselves to local media and said that four officers were sent to the hospital and two officers drove themselves. 

According to records obtained by the Daily Dot, Officers Brandon Scales and Wesley Cook responded to a report of found drugs at a commercial address in Orlando, Florida. They discovered grocery bags filled with bricks which were field tested and assumed to be cocaine and fentanyl. 

According to the lab reports, though, one of the bags containing a white brick of powder was tested and only cocaine appeared in the results. 

Many other items, such as a container with unknown powder and other bags, were not examined.

Officers Bryce Blinn and Nicholas Stewart also responded to the scene. They were investigating a car outside and found two plastic bags. They found sealed plastic bags which were too tight to open. Officer Blinn “ripped a small hole” in the bag and saw a brick of a “white powdery substance.” 

Lab tests revealed it to be cocaine.

Records the Daily Dot received in this incident did not detail what symptoms officers had after coming across fentanyl or what required hospitalization. 

All officers were released from the hospital by 4pm that same day. Orlando Police did not respond to follow up questions about the incident.

While experts agree that the way law enforcement is exposed to fentanyl should not cause overdose and that many of the symptoms officers reported are not consistent with opioid overdose symptoms. 

In a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, investigators were unable to say how law enforcement were experiencing the symptoms they reported. Meanwhile officers and the news media contribute to the fear and misinformation around fentanyl which leads to more officers experiencing panic responses when coming across the drug they don’t properly understand. 

For Professor Campbell, she sees this case as a result of lack of understanding and the need to make the public understand the danger. 

“I think that part of it is lack of knowledge.” Campbell said. “Part of it is a kind of dramatization of the danger that law enforcement builds themselves to be in, thanks to the situation with fentanyl.” 

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