TORONTO – The fatal fentanyl overdose of a Toronto drug squad officer has the police force considering what more it could be doing to support those working in its high-risk units.
The death of Const. Michael Thompson — which occurred in April, was deemed an overdose in July and was announced by police on Thursday — has raised many questions about what happened to the 37-year-old described as a good officer who was respected by his colleagues.
The force is conducting parallel reviews — one into Thompson’s death that includes investigating his professional responsibilities, and the other into support programs for officers in high-risk units, such as the drug squad, human trafficking unit and the emergency task force, said police spokeswoman Meaghan Gray.
Investigators haven’t said why Thompson, who was found in medical distress at his home, had fentanyl at his residence. They also haven’t been able to determine if he may have purchased drugs on the street or taken them from police exhibits.
But, Gray said, while some questions about Thompson may always remain unanswered, the force is taking a close look at how it supports officers who work on squads like his.
“(The force is) looking to see whether what we’re doing is enough and potentially what else we could offer officers,” Gray said. “We want to see if there’s anything that we could be doing differently.”
The force already has mandatory wellness visits for officers in high-risk units that include scheduled meetings with psychiatrists, Gray said, but police are looking closely at those supports.
“Any time we lose a member it is concerning to us and I think that we would take a look at … what services we’re providing” and make any changes that would benefit all members of the force, she said.
The force has said the quantity of fentanyl in Thompson’s system was too large to have been caused by mere contact with the opioid, which is about 100 times stronger than morphine.
The synthetic painkiller — which is often mixed into drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — has been blamed for the growing overdose crisis that federal health officials say is expected to claim the lives of more than 3,000 people this year.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, said Thompson’s case “is a tragic situation, but it’s a rare situation.”
“Generally speaking, police organizations across the country have very rigorous pre-selection screening processes,” Stamatakis said. “We should always keep sight of the need to properly vet people who want to get into policing, so that you can mitigate the risk that someone, once they get into policing, will make bad decisions.”
Officers in high-risk units are screened even more carefully by medical professionals such as psychiatrists, he said, and once hired they are assessed regularly to ensure the stresses of the job are not negatively affecting their personal lives.
“Stigma is a very huge issue in our culture and that’s why these are scheduled appointments and interventions so that you take away that requirement for the individual to reach out and to say they are struggling,” he said.
Stamatakis said although Thompson’s case is most likely an isolated one, police forces should always review their policies and procedures something happens to one of their officers.
An addictions specialist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, called addiction “an equal opportunity disease,” but noted that professionals who have regular access to drugs are considered high risk.
“Socio-economic status does not necessarily protect you from addiction,” said Dr. Peter Selby. “It all has to do with access.”
While he could not comment directly on Thompson’s case, Selby said workplaces where employees have access to drugs generally have good systems in place to account for the substances.
“There has to be some oversight to make sure what’s taken is properly stored, it’s appropriately accounted for and there is usually more than one person involved so it’s not left up to one person to manage it,” he said.
“If this loosens up, people who may be vulnerable then will see an opportunity, and unfortunately you don’t have to be addicted to die from opioids. It can even kill someone who is curious and tries just a little bit.”
— with files from Peter Cameron.