Criminal justice professor presents research on police views of addiction

WYOMISSING, Pa. — Police officers who are repeatedly called to the scene of opioid overdose incidents may be at risk for “empathy fatigue,” according to a Penn State researcher who said additional training may be helpful in preventing emotional burnout.

Jennifer Murphy, associate professor and program coordinator for criminal justice at Penn State Berks, recently presented the study — which examined attitudes of select local police officers in the Pennsylvania toward people who use drugs and the administration of Naloxone — at the monthly meeting of the Berks Opioid Coalition at Alvernia University on May 3.

“This research is important because police officers are often the first responders to an overdose call,” Murphy said. “Because of this role, they could potentially serve as a positive referral source for people who overdose to enter drug treatment. However, if some police hold stigmatizing attitudes, they may not be likely to encourage people to enter treatment or may have less empathy toward people with substance use disorders.”

Murphy conducted the study with Brenda Russell, professor of applied psychology at Penn State Berks. The researchers surveyed more than 600 police officers in six counties in Pennsylvania on their attitudes and beliefs about people who use drugs and the drug policies within their departments.

The researchers found that overall, the police officers in the study felt that they received adequate training on the administration of Naloxone and felt comfortable administering the overdose-reversing drug.

But about 50 percent of officers reported being unsure about whether drug addiction is a disease. More than 50 percent of the officers in the study also reported believing that morals and willpower were major factors that contribute to addiction. These results indicate that more education on addiction is needed.

The researchers said they are continuing to analyze the survey data and examine possible differences in attitudes between counties but results are not representative of the state of Pennsylvania as a whole.

For additional information on this study, contact Murphy at [email protected].