The small Ohio police department that posted photos to Facebook of a 4-year-old boy sitting in the backseat of a car with two overdosed adults in front has received death threats for making the images public — as well as hundreds of offers to adopt the child.
East Liverpool Director of Public Service and Safety Brian Allen told STAT the decision to make the photographs public comes as his small city of 11,000 residents is under siege from heroin and other opioids.
“We felt the story had to be told,” he said. “There is a real powerful story in that image. Children all over this country are going through the same thing. We can complain about the picture all we want, but what are we going to do to fix it?”
The posting generated worldwide media attention and a flurry of commentary on social media, including 3,000 comments on the city’s Facebook page. Many writers were upset with the decision, accusing the police agency of exploiting the child and stigmatizing people struggling with opioid addiction. Allen said the death threats were not against a specific officer and were primarily made over social media.
If you see a story about a couple who overdosed with a 4 year old in the car, please know that the police were gross for taking pictures
— Krista (@lechatsavant) September 9, 2016
Others praised the city’s decision, saying the photos brought needed attention to the expansive toll of the nation’s opioid crisis.
I agree that the police dept. Posted photos of couple overdosing! East liverpool police did the right thing! We have to stop hiding ODS!
— clientkm (@clientkm) September 9, 2016
— 138 SMACKDOWN LIVE (@138SMACKDOWN) September 9, 2016
Allen said the opioid problem in his city has worsened in the past three years. He said the 17 officers who work for him are consumed by overdose and drug-related calls, leaving other crimes unattended. He said state and federal funding for policing in the community has declined during the same time.
The adults in the photo were arrested Wednesday and charged with endangering a child. The next day, two more people in the city overdosed, he said. On Friday, police raided the residence of one heroin dealer and arrested another man in a separate incident for heroin possession.
“It is our own Aleppo,” he said, referring to the war-torn Syrian city.
An addiction treatment specialist said publishing the photos will not help stem the opioid problem.
“Research shows scare tactics don’t work,” said Patricia Mitrokostas, the director of prevention at Gosnold, an addiction treatment center in Massachusetts. “These images are graphic exploitation of two people suffering from the disease of addiction and vilifying them when they are clearly in a dire situation. The goal should be to remove the stigma and treat addiction as what it is – a chronic disease.”
Ohio has been among the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. Last year, 3,050 people in the state died of unintentional drug overdoses — a record amount and a 20 percent increase from the year prior. The state has also experienced several mass overdoses recently in which hundreds of people overdosed on heroin laced with fentanyl.
Police found a yellow, folded-up piece of paper with a small amount of a pink, powdery substance next to the boy’s unconscious mother. The driver was a man, whose relationship to the boy and the woman was not specified. Allen said both adults were known to police. Although the substance is still being tested, Allen said there is little doubt it is an opioid because both adults were revived with shots of the opioid antidote Narcan.
Allen said he believes the substance is heroin, likely laced with carfentanil. Carfentanil is a potent opioid that is used commercially as a tranquilizer for large animals, such as elephants. It is being blamed for an outbreak of hundreds of overdoses, and at least two dozen deaths, across Ohio in recent weeks.
Allen said evidence in the case had been requested through a public records request by a local television station. He said local officials decided they had to release the records since the driver of the car had already pleaded guilty to charges filed against him in the matter. They then decided to proactively post the photos and a police report of the incident on Facebook.
“Look at the expression on that child’s face,” Allen said. “He has seen this thousands of times in his life. Someone had to do something to stop that.” The child protective services agency took custody of the young boy.
By sharing the disturbing images, Allen said he hoped people who know of parents who are using opioids might call police or take other action to protect children in those homes. He said the photos might even prompt addicts to change their behavior. He said he doubts they will stop using drugs as a result, but they might drop a child off with a relative or friend when using.
“We’re hoping this does a lot of good for people,” he said.
Andrew Joseph contributed reporting.