National Institute of Justice Grant Awarded to Begun Center for Evaluation of Opioid Overdose Protocol

Streamlining investigations and prosecutions of opiate dealers is goal of three-year U.S. Department of Justice-funded research.

Seeking faster indictments and prosecutions of drug dealers after opioid overdose deaths and a better understanding of non-fatal overdoses, researchers at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University will re-work protocols followed by Cleveland-area law enforcement.

Supported by a nearly $1 million grant from the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the project seeks to improve the local response to a national crisis — the ever-increasing number of people killed by opiates. The guidelines under revision were created just three years ago, when Cuyahoga County’s opiate death toll reached a then-record 353 people. In 2017, that figure will more than double–to 860–according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“To fit the new reality of this epidemic, we need to update how our community responds — from hospital systems, to police, first responders and many others,” said Daniel J. Flannery, PhD (pictured), Director of the Begun Center and Principal Investigator of the grant. Research Professor Mark Fleisher, PhD, will co-lead the project, which also includes Begun Center Research Associate Krystel Tossone, PhD.

The researchers will analyze all county overdose cases from 2014-17, including those successfully and unsuccessfully prosecuted, in addition to interviewing dozens of prosecutors, police and medical examiners. An epidemiologist will be hired to assist with coding and data extraction of overdose death cases during this time period.

Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas Gilson, MD, whose office will house the epidemiologist, noted that “as fatal opioid overdoses continue to rise annually, this is an opportunity to take an in-depth look at the protocols and practices currently being used. By looking closely at the data on hand, both fatal and non-fatal overdoses, opioid-related investigations can only benefit.”

The data will shape a new protocol focused on preserving evidence in all heroin-related incidents, not just those involving a death. “It is especially important to better understand non-fatal overdoses in order to more effectively intervene and prevent future fatalities. Some people overdose 10 times before dying. Information from these incidents can be of more value in arresting and prosecuting dealers,” said Flannery, who is also the Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor at the Mandel School.

Identifying and addressing the gaps that exist in the current protocol for heroin involved death investigations will sustain its impact. A new science-informed protocol can help to sustain the momentum in Cuyahoga County to indict heroin distributors.

“These dollars will support efforts to make law enforcement more efficient and precise as we try to stem the tide of death and suffering caused by opioids throughout our country, state and region,” said U.S. Attorney Justin E. Herdman. “This grant will help prosecutors and police work more effectively to prosecute drug dealers who kill people while we continue to support drug courts and other efforts to help people get the treatment they need.”

Case Western Reserve is a partner in the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Heroin and Crime Initiative (HCI), which includes the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office and the City of Cleveland Division of Police.

For 20 years, the Begun Center has engaged in collaborative, community-based applied research and evaluation in the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County and the northern district of Ohio for enhancing policing and neighborhood-based crime prevention. Begun Center researchers have extensive experience directing Department of Justice (DOJ) funded projects and in particular with the HCI partners:

  • Researchers are currently working with the Cleveland Division of Police in gathering and analyzing the information required for compliance with the DOJ Consent Decree on police use of force and misconduct.
  • For the last two years, Begun Center researchers have served on the county’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review committee.
  • Since 2013 the Begun Center has served as embedded research partner to the Bureau of Justice Assistance funded Sexual Assault Kit Initiative with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, which involves the coding of complex case file data on sexual offenders via the Justice Matters data collection system.
  • Researchers have been actively evaluating drug courts in Cleveland and across Ohio for several years, following participants for the 12 to 18 months they participate in the programs and beyond, identifying interventions that may help the criminal justice system meet the needs of a substance user who faces criminal charges, such as the use of medication-assisted treatment, recovery coaches, mentors, and trauma treatment services.

These working relationships with the HCI partners and the Center’s experience in accessing and coding data obtained from their Justice Matters database will prove invaluable to the HCI, focusing on crime analysis by sampling and coding case files for overdose deaths and non-fatal overdose cases.