Do safe injection sites increase crime rates? What a Brown University study found.

PROVIDENCE - A study co-led by a Brown University researcher indicates that overdose prevention centers, like the one poised to open in Providence next year, do not lead to increased neighborhood crime rates.

The study – published in JAMA Network Open – is based on a comparison between 17 needle-exchange programs in New York City and the two city-sanctioned centers that are authorized to allow illicit drug consumption under the supervision of medical professionals. The results showed that there were no significant increases in crimes recorded by the police or calls for emergency services in the surrounding area.

“Adding safe consumption didn't change the tenor of the neighborhood, but you need to be in dialogue with police,” said researcher Brandon del Pozo, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School and School of Public Health.

The findings come as an overdose prevention center, or safe-consumption site, is expected to begin serving clients early next year in Providence through a partnership between Project Weber/RENEW and VICTA, an outpatient substance abuse and mental health treatment program.

In 2021, Rhode Island became the first state in the nation to authorize centers for people to consume illegal drugs under supervision, in hopes that it would reduce the number of overdose deaths.

Advocates embrace findings

“This research published in JAMA Open Network highlights what other data across the world has also showcased: overdose prevention centers increase public health by saving lives and connecting people to critical services, while also not having any negative impact on crime or public disorder,” said Annajane Yolken, director of strategy for Project Weber/RENEW, a nonprofit organization that provides harm reduction and recovery support services.

“Rhode Island’s overdose prevention center, authorized by state law in 2021, is critical in combating the overdose epidemic. Project Weber/RENEW and its partner organization, VICTA, are in the process of hiring a medical director and finalizing a location for the center,” Yolken continued.

A record 435 people in Rhode Islander fatally overdosed in 2021 and 2022. As of November, the state Department of Health had tracked 247 deaths, a number that is likely to change.

“Rhode Island has always been in the lead in responding with science and evidence to the opioid crisis,” del Pozo, who co-led the study, said. “This is another way Rhode Island can stay in the lead.”

Fentanyl test strips are available at some needle exchange sites as a harm-reduction method. They can detect the synthetic opioid in drugs.
Fentanyl test strips are available at some needle exchange sites as a harm-reduction method. They can detect the synthetic opioid in drugs.

No significant changes in New York City

New York City became the first in the nation to open the centers in 2021 as overdose deaths spiked. They are illegal under federal law and media outlets have recently reported that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is threatening to shut them down.

Del Pozo emphasized, according to the study, concerns about the centers leading to spikes in crime and disruption are unfounded.

“To those who worry that opening overdose prevention centers will increase crime in neighborhoods that need these types of programs, I would say that our analysis does not bear that out,” del Pozo said in a news release.

Del Pozo, who was joined in the study by two other researchers, analyzed publicly available data, including criminal complaints, arrest reports, criminal court summonses, and 911 and 311 call records for crime, public nuisances and medical events, from January 2019 through December 2022.

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The findings showed no significant changes in violent crimes or property crime, 911 calls for crime or medical incidents, or 311 calls regarding drug use or unsanitary conditions observed near the centers.

To bolster their findings, the researchers examined other city locations with similar levels of felony crime rates and drug arrests during the two years before the overdose prevention centers opened.

The researchers found a noteworthy decline in low-level drug enforcement, as reflected by a reduction in arrests for drug possession near the centers by 82.7%, and a reduction in their broader neighborhoods by 74.5%, as well as declines in criminal court summonses issued in the immediate vicinity by 87.9%.

“According to these measures, reports of crime changed very little in the neighborhoods surrounding OPCs,” del Pozo said. “Moving forward, we must continue to conduct research to see how law enforcement and public health practitioners, especially harm reduction groups, can continue to effectively collaborate on solutions to the opioid crisis in America.”

The study was in collaboration with Aaron Chalfin at the University of Pennsylvania and David Mitre Becerril at the University of Connecticut School of Public Policy.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Safe injection sites did not lead to more crime in NYC, Brown study finds