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When Law Enforcement Covers Opioids

The Gazette allowed the DA’s office to write a four part series on drugs without explaining to readers why that’s a conflict of interest.

By Will Meyer

Two weeks ago The Gazette did a four-part series “to raise awareness” about the opioid crisis. The series was written by the District Attorney’s director of community outreach and education and former Gazette reporter Laurie Loisel. (Loisel is also co-chair of the Northampton Human Rights Commission.) In other words, the public relations arm for the law enforcement agency responsible for prosecuting drug crime did a major series about illegal drugs for a newspaper that claims to be independent of state influence. The series deals with how the crisis has impacted “families left behind” by overdose deaths. In an editorial explaining the “unusual arrangement” for the paper, Gazette editor Brooke Hauser writes: “We went through our own discussions in the newsroom about whether the partnership presented a conflict of interest.” A thought on which she doesn’t elaborate besides explaining that District Attorney Dave Sullivan didn’t read the series or see its photos before publication, and that Loisel wouldn’t write favorably about him or his programs — all to suggest editorial independence. However, generally accepted journalistic norms require a separation between news gathering and the state, disallowing government actors to report on issues they are responsible for overseeing. Acknowledging that they chose not to have a staffer report the series, Hauser explained: “We chose to work with Loisel because she already came to the subject with such a deep well of knowledge and empathic understanding,” which, along with a disclaimer at the end of each article, seemed to justify what would normally smell like journalistic malpractice.

Whether or not Sullivan read the series or the editors issued a disclaimer is sort of besides the point. One particularly egregious example of a news organization allowing faulty government information to be spread to the public was in the lead up to the Iraq war when the New York Times published “anonymous intelligence” that wrongly suggested that Suddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Because the Times uncritically promulgated false information, one of the most deadly and useless wars was waged; and it was all based on a lie. Which is all to say it is imperative that journalism remains independent from government. In order to hold government and private actors accountable to the public — which, by most accounts, is the underlying premise of journalism — newspapers do not allow oil companies to cover climate change, banks to cover financial regulation, the CIA to cover national security, or law enforcement to cover drugs. Still, these norms aren’t a fail safe. With disclosure it has become normal for oil companies to produce journalistic style content that is published by reputable news organizations. Chevron covered energy for The New York Times and later made a podcast for Politico. These outlets contend that with proper disclosure (“produced by Chevron”) corporate content doesn’t have to mention climate change — or, in the Gazette’s case (“Loisel wrote this series in her capacity as an employee of the District attorney’s office”), the War on Drugs.

But not only is this series an affront to the flimsy journalistic ethics the Gazette purports to care about, it doesn’t contextualize why this is a conflict of interest. Nowhere in Loisel’s dispatches or Hauser’s editorial do we learn why the District Attorney’s office is not a neutral actor. Despite Loisel’s “deep…knowledge” of the opioid crisis including experience in law enforcement, the series doesn’t disclose the culpability of her employer and goes to great lengths to paint the police in a positive light. (“You don’t expect a police officer to come to your house and express condolences in such a genuine way,” a mother who lost a child told Loisel.) Hauser explained that the reason Sullivan supports his PR person writing copy for a newspaper is because he “views the newspaper as an effective way of educating the public about the opioid crisis, which is quickly morphing into a fentanyl crisis.” Hauser states that the series aims to “warn the public about [the] dangers” of fentanyl. “Raising awareness” about “danger” serves to legitimize law enforcement and Sullivan’s job is, of course, to maintain a regime of drug prohibition and prosecute and incarcerate people who violate the law. What Hauser and Loisel do not mention is the near consensus that the reason that fentanyl is in the drug supply is because of drug prohibition, which makes the government unable to regulate drugs or keep them safe. But Loisel’s job isn’t to offer a neutral or objective accounting of her boss’s role in the overdose crisis as it would be if she was still a journalist. Her livelihood now depends on promoting the interests and objectives of the District Attorney, no matter the cost.

What War on Drugs?

Throughout the series, Loisel deploys the language of combat. “If the opioid epidemic is a war, these numbers represent the casualties,” she writes in one of the first pieces of the series. Or, more aptly in a piece on harm reduction workers: “If the opioid overdose death epidemic is a war, then Alvarez and his team are the troops, and their battle plan is harm reduction.” Still, despite her excessive use of the analogy, Loisel doesn’t mention “The War on Drugs” once in the series. Waged by President Nixon in 1971, the War on Drugs is, by many accounts, the longest standing conflict in modern U.S. history, and was, like the Iraq war, based on a lie. A former aide to Nixon told Harper’s Magazine the following in 1994: “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” This war will have two domestic legacies: mass incarceration for people of color and an opioid epidemic for whites. Internationally, it has been used to justify bloody interventions in Central and South America as well. Approximately 600,000 died because of the media-abetted lies of the Iraq war and 700,000 have died from drug overdoses and media abetted lies of the Drug War.

Since Nixon waged war, government policy has decimated education funding and social services while wages stagnated and wealth calcified in the hands of oligarchs. Meanwhile, the state built up its police and prison apparatus under the guise of “fighting drugs,” cementing that United States prioritized incarceration and punitive interventions over medically appropriate ones. As a result, the United States has the highest rates of incarceration and the lowest life expectancy in the modern world — all so that someone like Joe Biden could build a political career pandering to the United States’ worst instincts. Accordingly, District Attorney Dave Sullivan has remade his image as a reformer on the opioid crisis, flaunting his (incomplete) commitment to nonpunitive treatment while remaining mute on prosecution and incarceration. And, in turn, it benefits Sullivan greatly to receive complimentary press coverage that goes easy on his utter failure to stop overdoses by jailing drug dealers.

A False Conviction 

The series pitches itself as telling the story of the opioid epidemic’s impact on (mostly white) families left behind behind by overdose deaths. Loisel admittedly focused on people she personally related to (“The whole time doing these interviews, I felt like, ‘This could be my family,’” Loisel told Hauser). This inadvertently exposed the series’s erasure of those who didn’t fit the frame, such as those without houses, sex-workers and others. Yet, even within bounds of the family frame, Loisel doesn’t veer into any subject matter that would paint the DA in a negative light: namely the impact on the families whose loved ones have been incarcerated or who have been impacted by the police violence of the drug war. In a Worcester Magazine investigation of how military style SWAT raids impact children, Shoestring contributor Seth Kershner recounts the trauma inflicted on two young girls who experienced a rude awakening after heavily armed SWAT officers violently entered their home looking for someone who no longer lived there and had already been arrested. Per a lawsuit suing the city of Worcester which Kershner cited, the older daughter “refuses to sleep alone and has treatment for anxiety and fear that, in her words, ‘army men’ will again invade her home.” Again, despite Loisel’s fixation on how this “war” impacts families, the scars left behind by ‘army men’ busting down the doors of the Diaz family home for no reason remains outside of her purview. It just happens that her boss Dave Sullivan manages the 47 town Anti-Crime Task Force, a military style SWAT team that, for the most part, serves warrants to people who pose no immediate danger to the public; people who are often sleeping. In his investigation, Kershner cites a 2014 ACLU report: “Based on nearly 4,000 public records obtained from police departments across the country, [the report] found about 80 percent of all SWAT deployments were for the purposes of executing a search warrant — usually for drugs,” he said.

Hauser’s editorial uncritically quotes Sullivan, who admirably said, “We strive for treatment above all else, to treat addiction as a disease and not criminalize it.” Of course, strive is the key word. As The Gazette’s own reporting suggests, Sullivan’s Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Bucci prosecuted Jesse Carrillo for manslaughter after he sold heroin to Eric Sinacori, which caused a fatal overdose. A jury convicted him, and Sinacori’s mother, hoping to send a message to drug dealers, thanked them and Bucci for “making sure justice was served.” The truth, however, was more complicated. Like Sinacori, Carrillo was also addicted to heroin. His defense attorney said, “There are dozens of individuals who believe that Jesse saved their lives, literally, by helping them end their addiction to heroin before it killed them.” The District Attorney has put a series of 2014 press clippings on his website touting the arrests made by the then newly formed Anti-Drug Task Force. Never mind that three out of the eleven articles are about arrests resulting from traffic stops despite the stated premise of bragging about the new SWAT team. Perhaps the most telling is the case of Tara Shippee. Flexing the purported effectiveness of the expanded capacity to perform home raids, the Task Force raided her home and arrested her three separate times in the span of four months. Bucci, who is in charge of drug prosecution, said of her repeat arrests, “We bring to bear the full weight of our prosecutorial efforts when people flaunt the conditional liberty courts have previously granted them.” A journalist might be interested in the tax dollars wasted arresting the same person three different times with questionable results; Loisel is not.

It’s doubtful that Carrillo’s conviction or Shippee’s arrests changed anything. “No police officer with any experience is going to go and claim that because they arrested some drug dealers, now people can’t get drugs,” policing scholar Alex Vitale told The Shoestring. The cops working on Sullivan’s task force agree with Vitale’s skepticism. In an article announcing the new Anti-Drug Task Force, Jarret Mousseau, narcotics officer for the Athol Police Department, put it bluntly: “We’ll hit the main supplier for the area, specific to heroin, and I swear to God it takes a day and somebody just takes over.” In another quote however, he believed these raids were more effective, saying that sometimes it takes “a few weeks” for a new dealer to fill the vacuum. Sullivan was optimistic to a fault: “I am fully confident that this innovative regional task force will make a real difference in making our communities safer and stronger,” he wrote in the grant application for state funds to form the Task Force.

The results are in: no amount of tax dollars spent on prisons, militarized home raids, and international interventions has done anything to stop the supply of drugs. “Supply reduction has failed to reduce drug use, while provoking drug trade-related violence,” the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance says. They note that prohibition has pushed the drug economy underground thus making it more dangerous, especially due to violence incited by police. As Loisel rightly suggests, the problem is getting worse; the “rate of overdose deaths caused by opioids has increased every year since 1999,” according to the CDC. Since 2014, the year Sullivan’s received state funds to form his Anti-Crime Task Force, opioid deaths have increased 38.8 percent in the United States — mirroring a 37.2 percent increase in Hampshire and Franklin counties, per Loisel’s reporting. Still, the failure of Sullivan’s efforts to stop availability of drugs via supply side SWAT raids doesn’t interest Loisel, or The Gazette.

Punitive Treatment

For his part, Sullivan has been changing his tune — again, positioning himself as a reformer and advocating for policies that are radical within the law enforcement profession. As Hauser notes, Sullivan publicly supports safe injection sites, which is nearly unheard of for a district attorney. Loisel and Sullivan, to much deserved credit, have championed non-punitive treatment and harm reduction, including a “voluntarily diversion program” that sends those who don’t meet its rigorous requirements to jail. As of May 2019, only 77 of 194 participants successfully completed the program. What happened to the 117 who didn’t get clean from the District Attorney’s “non-punitive” diversion project? Did they relapse? Overdose? Get treatment in jail? Why is the program failing more people than it’s helping? How come those left behind by the District Attorney’s office don’t interest Loisel or the Gazette’s editors?

Furthermore, the Franklin County Jail’s treatment program has received national acclaim, including a feature piece by the Associated Press, something Loisel omits from her series. An Ozy article enthused about how the 330 bed Franklin County Jail is “now at the vanguard of U.S. correctional facilities,” praising what Sheriff Donelan has called a “locked treatment facility” for offering a medically supported Suboxone program. This is, of course, significantly better than the alternative. The program is so effective that Dr. Ruth Potee, an addiction specialist who Loisel quotes extensively in multiple reports, believes that addiction treatment works better in jail. Ozy’s Mattea Kramer paraphrased Potee, writing: “It’s easier to offer intensive therapy at the jail than at the civilian treatment center, where patients stay for 30 days max.” Of course Loisel doesn’t mention that Potee is on the jail’s payroll in her reporting (or even that jail is a place her boss sends people with drug addictions); instead, Loisel gushes about the standing ovation she received at Eliza Harper’s memorial service, a late twenty 26 year-old who she followed in the series. “Ruth is one of those voices — she’s angry, and she’s loud, and she’s expressing it. We’re starting to see more and more people not wanting to accept the oppression of stigma,” an attendee said of Potee’s eulogy; but presumably the oppression of jail isn’t something she’s loud or angry about; it’s preferable to civilian treatment after all.

For contrast, Kramer also tells the story of Adam S., a recovering addict, who was “treated” in a civilian recovery center. After he checked into the 64-bed Franklin Recovery Center run by Behavioral Health Network (where Potee also oversees treatment), he soon learned his insurance only covered a week and a half of inpatient care before discharging him for lack of funds. He relapsed (before eventually getting clean), supporting Potee’s point. The fact that a Sheriff calls his jail a “locked treatment facility” and that a doctor believes “treatment” works better on the inside should trouble us; but these are the results of a system that would rather incarcerate people than treat them.

The only place where punitive state action appears in Loisel’s series is in the case of Caleb Holmes, a high school athlete who got hooked on opioids after a torn ligament took him off the field. Holmes’ parents got him taken away in a squad car after a judge committed him to a mandatory state treatment program under what is called a Section 35 petition. “Driven to the courthouse by police, Caleb came into the hearing in shackles,” Loisel wrote. Her description of where Holmes was taken is very brief, merely describing it as “a treatment program in Brockton for people 13-19 years old.” This is all readers learn about Section 35 commitments. However, as NPR reported, “many studies show that forced treatment doesn’t work,” citing Leo Beletsky, a professor at Northeastern University. It didn’t work for Holmes, who overdosed despite what Loisel calls “extreme measures.” NPR focuses on a “treatment center” called the Massachusetts Alcohol and Substance Abuse Center, a former minimum security prison. “Although the patients have not committed crimes,” reporter Deborah Becker said, “they arrive handcuffed, wear prison jumpsuits in a facility that’s overseen by 100 corrections officers.” The center is one of five “addiction treatment” centers run by the Department of Corrections. Becker says that researchers found that Massachusetts is the only state that puts “patients” in “prison-run facilities” who haven’t committed a crime.

Despite their controversial nature, Section 35 “treatment” in a correctional facility is the only option the state is offering as “health care” for those who can’t afford other options. For the poor, addiction is a criminal offense — if not a death sentence. The fact that the Department of Corrections is the main provider of “treatment” for the guilty and innocent alike who are not wealthy should be a major scandal akin to putting children in cages; instead, Loisel objectifies the Holmes’ grief, doesn’t look into how the state failed their child, and reminds parents that they can always call the police who will knock on the door and offer “genuine” condolences when the time comes. After all, this is a propaganda piece for law enforcement who are incentivized to receive funds to continue the war on drugs.

The Politics of Stigma, and Stigma of Politics

In Loisel’s telling, three things created the crisis. First, over prescription and false advertising by rogue drug manufacturers; second, the classification of pain as the “fifth vital sign” by a medical Joint Commission eager to spur treatment; and third, the troubling rise of the dangerous additive fentanyl in the drug supply. Loisel’s frames these causes as a “perfect storm,” describing the crisis as if it were an act of god rather than a product of a deliberate political project. Yet as Kathleen J. Frydl, author of the The Drug Wars in America, points out, the opioid epidemic is a product of U.S. policy “in every possible sense.” Heroin was made illegal in 1956 during an era when drug policy pivoted from regulation to “de-facto prohibition”, which, of course, paved the way for Nixon’s War on Drugs. But one of the biggest and underappreciated changes was to the FDA during the Clinton years. In his drive to “reinvent government,” Clinton restructured the agency under the Drug User Fee Act of 1992, which made drug manufacturers responsible for partial funding of the bureau tasked with regulating them. This led to the approval of OxyContin in 1995, despite evidence the agency had of the drug’s potential problems. Frydl quotes economists Anne Case and Angus Deato, who write “[there are] reasonable questions about an FDA approval system that licenses a class of drugs that has killed around 200,000 people.” In her description of “how we got here,” Loisel fails to accurately describe the political factors that led to this crisis — most notably the failures of drug prohibition, the drug war, and the government’s unwillingness to regulate harmful drugs.

Instead of engaging the culpability of politicians in Washington, Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley, or her employer for that matter, Loisel chooses to focus on the role of stigma and shame on individuals and how family members of the deceased are dealing with personalized grief. As Loisel put it: “For many families who’ve lost someone to an opioid overdose, their grief is complicated by a host of emotions not typically associated with the death of a young person, including stigma, shame and guilt.” Sullivan, for his part, said the series was to show that the victims are “not just a number, but a human being who lived and breathed in our community.” Hauser, in the headline of her editorial, suggested that these stories “remove shame around opioid addiction.” Loisel does explain that some parents who have lost children have began advocating for harm reduction measures like safe injection sites. One parent who lost a daughter, computer programmer Dan Harper, is working on a smartphone app to alert family members in the case of overdose. This is, Loisel explains, “his way of trying to regain control.” While these are noble and laudable steps, the emphasis on stigma, guilt, and shame obscures the political realities of the crisis: that politicians and corporations have sentenced people suffering from a treatable disease to death by neglecting to regulate drugs and creating policies that have privileged jails in lieu of healthcare and jobs. Yet by insisting that the opioid crisis is the result of “a perfect storm” — a natural disaster — and “stigma,” Loisel places the political burden of the crisis on individuals for having outdated beliefs rather than on the institutions and individuals who caused it. By focusing her gaze on the suffering of grieving families while inaccurately assessing the crisis, Loisel’s series achieves what good PR work strives for: humanizing the District Attorney and easing the stigma, guilt, and shame of his pursuit of a failed war on drugs.

“People think we don’t care or we aren’t doing anything,” Monague narcotics detective Leon Laster said in the article touting Sullivan’s new Anti-Crime Task Force. “In order to kick that door in I have to have probable cause,” he added, lamenting the pesky obligations to people’s Constitutional rights police had to oblige before jailing more drug dealers. But his blase eagerness to knock down doors came from an earnest desire to help people, much like Loisel’s commendable drive to end stigma around addiction diseases and frame the crisis as a public health one. “Clearly, what we’re doing isn’t working,” another mother, Julie Foster, told Loisel in the series. But Loisel and the Gazette’s editors are uninterested in telling the families of the deceased what hasn’t worked or why; instead of holding the DA’s office accountable and telling the truth about drug prohibition, the Gazette has allowed that very office to use the pain of “the families left behind” to reform its image. The least Hauser could do is explain to readers why that’s a conflict of interest.

Will Meyer is co-editor of The Shoestring.

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