Warrant checking practices by post-overdose outreach programs in Massachusetts: A mixed-methods study

Int J Drug Policy. 2022 Feb:100:103483. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103483. Epub 2021 Oct 23.


Background: Post-overdose outreach programs engage survivors in harm reduction and treatment to prevent future overdoses. In Massachusetts, these emerging programs commonly deploy teams comprised of police and public health professionals based on 911 call information. Some teams use name/address data to conduct arrest warrant checks prior to outreach visits. We used mixed methods to understand approaches to outreach related to warrant checking, from the perspectives of police and public health outreach agencies and staff.

Methods: We analyzed a 2019 statewide survey of post-overdose outreach programs in Massachusetts to classify approaches to warrant checking and identify program and community factors associated with particular approaches. Ethnographic analysis of qualitative interviews conducted with outreach staff helped further contextualize outreach program practices related to warrants.

Results: A majority (57% - 79/138) of post-overdose outreach programs in Massachusetts conducted warrant checks prior to outreach. Among programs that checked warrants, we formulated a taxonomy of approaches to handling warrants: 1) performing outreach without addressing warrants (19.6% - 27/138), 2) delaying outreach until warrants are cleared (15.9% - 22/138), 3) arresting the survivor (11/138 - 8.0%), 4) taking a situational approach (10/138 - 7.2%), 5) not performing outreach (9/138 - 6.5%). Program characteristics and staff training did not vary across approaches. From police and public health outreach staff interviews (n = 38), we elicited four major themes: a) diverse motivations precede warrant checking, b) police officers feel tension between dual roles, c) warrants alter approaches to outreach, and d) teams leverage warrants in relationships. Findings from both analyses converged to demonstrate unintended consequences of warrant checking.

Conclusion: Checking warrants prior to post-overdose outreach visits can result in arrest, delayed outreach, and barriers to obtaining services for overdose survivors, which can undermine the goal of these programs to engage overdose survivors. With the public health imperative of engaging overdose survivors, programs should consider limiting warrant checking and police participation in field activities.

Keywords: Overdose; Police; Post-overdose outreach; Public health; Warrant checking.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Drug Overdose* / prevention & control
  • Harm Reduction
  • Humans
  • Law Enforcement
  • Massachusetts
  • Police