Cop Overdoses After Touching Fentanyl, Police Chief Says He Could’ve Died

Chris Green was about to go home after busting two men for drugs when he brushed some powder off his shirt. It was an opioid so strong that skin contact can kill.

Drew Angerer/Getty

After arresting two men in a drug bust, Ohio police officer Chris Green returned to the East Liverpool Police Department headquarters to fill out the necessary paperwork. When another officer pointed out a white, powdery substance on Green’s shirt, he wiped it off without giving it a second thought.

An hour later, he passed out.

Green had was overdosed on fentanyl, an opioid so potent it can be absorbed into the body just by making contact with skin. The drug is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is also leading to a steadily increasing rate of overdose-related deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because it’s cheaper than most other opioids, the drug is often used to cut cocaine and heroin.

Green pulled over Justin Buckle and Cortez Collins after watching them perform what he thought was a drug sale, WKBN 27 reported.

“The guys in the car knew they were going to be searched, so they were trying to dispose of the drugs,” East Liverpool Police Chief John Lane told The Daily Beast. “They threw the bags on the floor and were trying to smash them on the carpet, which broke them open. Powder got all over the inside of the car.”

Collins and Buckle were each charged with tampering with evidence, their car was towed, and Green returned to the stationhouse to fill out their arrest forms. Before approaching the car, Green put on gloves and a face mask.

Lane said Green was processing evidence at the station when someone pointed out a substance on his clothing.

“Someone says to him, ‘Hey, you got something on your shirt.’ He wipes it with his hand, an hour later he says, ‘Man, I don’t feel so good.’ And he collapses.”

The other officers called an ambulance for Greene, who was given multiple doses of Narcan, emergency nasal spray that blocks the effects of opioids. For their own safety, East Liverpool police officers are required to wear gloves and a face mask when dealing with the substance—but in cases like Greene’s, these precautions may not be enough to stave off danger.

“You can’t just have one guy doing this kind of evidence collection,” Lane said. “If he gets overcome with something like that and passes out, if there’s nobody there, he could just die. We have to have more than one officer on this, and when you have a small department, it’s hard.”

The East Liverpool Police Department has 17 officers, Lane said. They’ve been making opioid-related arrests for years, but fentanyl is a more recent—and more deadly—problem. The small city, which borders West Virginia and Kentucky, had a population of just over 11,195 in 2010. Lane said the surge in fentanyl cases was “coming from Cleveland,” although officers also regularly monitor the state border to catch potential drug traffickers.

Some police departments have begun carrying Narcan or other naloxone-based medications to reverse opioid overdose side-effects, but the East Liverpool PD officers haven’t. According to Lane, equipping each police car with Narcan would be costly and complicated, especially since the city’s ambulance services are trained to quickly respond to opioid-related calls.

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Statewide, 1,155 people unintentionally overdosed on fentanyl in 2015, the most recent year the data was available. There were more fentanyl-related overdoses in 2015 in Ohio than the three previous years combined: in 2014, there were just 503 fentanyl-related overdoses. In 2013, that figure was 84.

East Liverpool police made headlines last year when officers posted pictures on Facebook of a couple passed out in a car on the side of the road, presumably from an opioid-related overdose, with a small child in the back seat.

“We feel it’s necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug. We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess,” officers wrote on Facebook. “This child can't speak for himself but we are hopeful his story can convince another user to think twice about injecting this poison while having a child in their custody.”

There were more than a dozen confirmed fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Columbiana County, where East Liverpool is located, in 2016, Salem News reported. The Columbiana County coroner’s office is still working on compiling a list of total fentanyl-related deaths for last year, a spokesperson told The Daily Beast.

Greene was lucky to survive and is in stable condition as of Sunday, but Lane expressed concern that had the drug gone undetected, it could have killed members of the officer’s family.

“If he goes home and takes his shirt off, his wife, mother, girlfriend, whoever does the laundry could grab it, get it on her hand, and that could kill her,” he said.

“Let’s say he goes home, his kids run up to him, ‘Daddy, daddy!’ and jump on him to give him a hug. It can get on their body, it could kill them. It can just go on and on.”