Winston Salem Police Department Works to Protect Officers from Needlestick Injuries
Interview by Tessie Castillo, NCHRC Program and Advocacy Coordinator
On December 1, 2013 a law went into effect in North Carolina that protects law enforcement from accidental needlestick injury and potential exposure to HIV and hepatitis C during searches. HB850/Needlestick Prevention law states that a person cannot be prosecuted for possession of a syringe or other sharp object if the object is declared to a law enforcement officer prior to search. The law was designed after a survey of officers from 67 departments in NC revealed the majority of law enforcement were concerned about needlestick injury and supported a syringe decriminalization law in order to prevent it. But now that the law is in effect, are law enforcement actually using it to protect themselves? And how are they handling the issues of drug residue that is left in a used syringe? I spoke with Sgt David Rose at the Winston Salem Police Department to find out how his department is moving forward to protect officers from needle stick injury.
TC: What is the position of the Winston Salem Police Department (WSPD) regarding what to do when a person gives up a syringe with residue to an officer?
Sgt Rose: We are not charging for residue and our District Attorney said he is not prosecuting for residue either. If someone tells us they have a needle, we seize it, destroy it and move on. Our chain of command up to the Captain supports HB850 to protect officers from needlestick injury. Ninety-nine out of 100 officers understand the law, but you have to make policies for the one who doesn’t.
TC: Why is it important that law enforcement not prosecute for residue?
Sgt Rose: The spirit of the law is to protect officers from injury. We have to consider the benefits of charging for a low level felony versus officer safety. Citizens might not tell us about a needle because they are afraid of a felony charge and we might be stuck with a needle.
TC: Have any of your officers utilized the law to protect themselves from needlestick injury?
Sgt Rose: Yes, we had an officer stop a car right after the law was passed. The guy came right out and said he had a needle in the car. The officer took it and destroyed it. We are really glad he didn’t get stuck. I would rather every addict come out and admit to having a needle than for one person not to tell the truth and have one of our officers get stuck. That’s my position as a supervisor.
TC: Why does the Forsyth County District Attorney not prosecute for residue?
Sgt Rose: I think prosecutors would rather spend their time prosecuting solid felonies than a bunch of residue cases.
TC: Do you think your position on searches is unique among law enforcement in NC?
Sgt Rose: I have not had that discussion with other departments about it, but I hope we are not unique. It’s just common sense to protect officers and not charge for residue.
TC: What would you say to departments who are charging for residue?
Sgt Rose: I would tell them to seriously consider the big picture. Ultimately it is more important to protect officers than to get that charge.