CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A New Hampshire training program that teaches police officers and prosecutors how to treat drug overdoses as crime scenes is emerging as a model for other states grappling with the opioid crisis.
Outgoing Attorney General Joe Foster launched the training last summer so that officers could learn how to trace bad batches of drugs to the source, with the goal of charging dealers — particularly large suppliers — who cause overdoses with "death resulting," a previously little-used charge that carries up to life in prison.
That training now serves as a blueprint for other attorneys general nationwide. The National Association of Attorneys General brought several New Hampshire officials to Washington in early March to draft training materials for wider use, and Foster himself has become a go-to person on the issue. He has spoken about New Hampshire's approach at a conference in Rhode Island, and Alabama officials have asked for more information. In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi says she frequently talks to Foster for ideas on fighting the drug crisis.
"The New Hampshire program just absolutely, in my mind, was the catalyst or the cha-ching moment of, 'Hey, this would be a wonderful training to take nationally," said Mark Neil, counsel for the National Association of Attorneys General's training division.
Officials from Ohio, Massachusetts and Florida have also been involved in drafting the national training materials, but Neil said New Hampshire has driven the process.
New Hampshire is one of many states, including Ohio, Maine, West Virginia and New Jersey, where authorities are filing homicide, involuntary manslaughter or related charges against dealers. They argue that overdose deaths should be treated as crimes leading to stiff sentences, and can serve as a deterrent to others.
Officials say New Hampshire stands out because its training was the first that brought local, state and federal officers and prosecutors together to share information and to make sure everyone is approaching overdose scenes in the same way — as a crime scene rather than an accidental death. The training teaches police how to gather evidence such as cell phone records that could be traced back to the dealer and how to safely handle fentanyl, the potent drug now responsible for the majority of New Hampshire's overdoses.
"Before this was happening, officers would walk into a scene where an individual had passed away and it was dealt with as almost a matter of routine," said Ben Agati, a senior assistant attorney general in New Hampshire. "It wasn't seen as an opening or an opportunity to investigate the end of the drug distribution network."
But critics say this tough new approach doesn't work.
"We've tried to arrest and prosecute our way out of drug problems before to no avail," said Mark Sisti, a criminal defense attorney who has represented several people facing "death resulting" charges. "We're not getting drug overdose death prosecutions against the big guys; we're getting them against the small guys."
Others argue that resources could be better spent on getting people help instead of prosecuting lower level dealers, such as someone who is using drugs themselves and shares with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Law enforcement officials admit it may be too soon to know whether the approach is effective and they didn't provide data on what amount of drugs has been taken off the streets. Since the training, New Hampshire's justice department has charged 11 people with "death resulting," up from just one the year before. Local departments have sent the AG's office 114 cases for more investigation, and county attorneys also pursue death resulting charges on their own.
For Foster, who pushed the training, prosecution is just one piece of tackling New Hampshire's addiction crisis. But he said people who knowingly cause deaths must face some culpability.
"I'm told by law enforcement that there's chatter about the fact that if you cause a death you may well be looking at some significant jail time, so hopefully there'll be some deterrence," Foster said.