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Fact Check

Reports of an Officer’s Alleged Fentanyl Overdose Were Greatly Exaggerated. So What Went Wrong?

Media credulousness around the unlikely story shows how clumsy reporting perpetuates bad policing.

(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last week CNN ran a heart-wrenching story about a San Diego sheriff’s deputy “knocked off his feet in seconds” by exposure to fentanyl. You can’t find the story now — the original link just redirects to the CNN main page.

Apparently reports of an officer’s overdose were greatly exaggerated. So what went wrong?

Original news reports were largely based on a video released by the sheriff’s office that purports to show a trainee collapsing to the ground after encountering a baggie of fentanyl and then being saved by his quick-thinking partner who has Narcan on hand. The video isn’t just some grainy body-worn camera footage. It is a nearly four-minute long production, complete with an introduction, editing, and voice-over narrative. The whole thing makes for a compelling story, but it seems that at no point did the reporters or media outlets think to check the claims made.

Experts quickly cast doubt on the reports, and the media backtracked.

“The conclusion that his collapse was caused by contact with fentanyl was supplied by the Sheriff’s Department rather than by qualified medical experts, who have since cautioned that the risks from incidental contact are often overstated,” The Los Angeles Times wrote.

The allegations aren’t that the sheriff’s office necessarily lied about an overdose. Nor are experts saying that fentanyl shouldn’t be treated as a serious issue: Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were involved in more than 36,000 overdose deaths in 2019. Rather, the problem is that law enforcement remains largely ignorant about the actual threat — or lack thereof — from accidental exposure to fentanyl through the skin or air.

In fact, a report by RTI International, supported by Arnold Ventures, found that law enforcement is wholly misinformed about the synthetic opioid.

Although toxicologists, medical professionals, and service providers have determined that the risk of overdose from fentanyl exposure is extremely low for law enforcement and other first responders, hundreds of media and social media accounts contradict these facts, making these civil servants unnecessarily concerned about such occupational hazards.”

The report recommends better training and distribution of accurate information for officers, but the media has a responsibility, too. Reporters all too often repeat claims by police without asking for proof, report anecdotes as evidence of criminal justice trends, and overall cover criminal justice as a one-sided issue.

However, journalists are starting to face up to these flaws in their coverage.

Gannett has announced a company-wide effort to reimagine the way its newspapers cover crime. “The goal is to move beyond coverage that lacks context and relies on police narratives to the detriment of marginalized communities,” Poynter reported.

It is a much needed change. Media perpetuation of false criminal justice narratives not only leads to a misinformed public, but also undermines effective policing.

“I’m concerned that the officers themselves are being psychologically harmed,” Dr. Lewis Nelson, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said about fentanyl in the LA Times. “There is more of a PTSD-like fear of this drug when, in reality, it’s not warranted. There is no risk of poisoning from such an exposure. And I fear people won’t rescue those who have overdosed because of the fear of being exposed.”

As cities continue to respond to a spike in homicides and policing comes under continued scrutiny, now more than ever both media and law enforcement need to remember the words of Sgt. Joe Friday: Just the facts, ma'am.

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