Keeping Safe From Needle Sticks

Late one night three weeks ago, a rookie officer working the night shift in a seedy part of the city stopped a drug dealer after the dealer just finished selling some heroin. The officer, who was excited about his big bust, started searching the drug dealer’s car. As he swept his hand between some seat cushions, he felt a sharp pain on the edge of his hand. The rookie saw a small puncture in his hand and then saw an uncapped needle laying there… with his blood on the needle.

This incident is real and is played out daily across the U.S. What do you do if you get stuck by a needle that came from a drug addict? First, we need to talk about how to avoid a needle stick in the first place. Later we will talk about what to do if you were stuck with a needle and how to safely handle uncapped syringes.

Anatomy of a Hypodermic Syringe

First, we need to know the anatomy of a syringe. We have the cannula, or the needle. This is the part we are trying to avoid. You have the hub next, followed by the barrel. The barrell is what holds the drugs. The plunger tip pushes the drugs through the barrel and into the needle. Lastly, you have the plunger.

Avoiding Needle Sticks

It seems obvious to be cautious around drug users when you do your searches. But, officers deal with danger every day and can quickly become complacent. If you are dealing with a drug addict, know that they may use syringes and take appropriate safety precautions. First and foremost, communicate to your partners that the person you are dealing with is a drug addict.

Next, just ask the suspect if they have a needle on them. You would be surprised that a number of them are honest and will tell you. Not all of them, but enough answer truthfully that it is worth it to ask. In California, where I work, I know that the district attorney will not charge a person with possession of a syringe. So, I tell people that I will not arrest them for possession of a syringe if they tell me where ALL of their syringes are. To me, it is worth the trade off. You would still arrest them for drug possession or other related charges, or they may already be in custody, but not worrying about this small charge can get you far

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When you conduct your search, do it slow, cautiously and with purpose. You don’t have to race through the search; you don’t get extra points for being speedy. If you are searching a person, it is good to gently pat the outer clothing. Don’t just grab the clothing and start squeezing or putting your hands in someone’s pockets without looking first.

A number of years ago, I stopped a parolee and arrested him for being high on drugs and a parole violation. During the subsequent search, I followed these rules. I looked at his pants as I was searching and noticed a needle sticking out through the cargo pocket. The suspect had taken the syringe he was using, bent the needle at a 90 degree angle and put it in his pocket. He told me that he did it so that an officer searching him would get stuck when he was being pat searched. This same suspect had Hepatitis C. Thank God I heeded my own advice and didn’t get stuck with that needle.

If, like in my case, you find a needle in a pocket, don’t just reach in. I would advise to handcuff the suspect first to better gain control. Open the pocket so that you can clearly see inside. Then reach in safely and remove it. Sometimes, I use a little grabber that I got for a few bucks at a hardware store to grab it.

If you are searching a car or a home, take the same precautions. Look before you put your hands anywhere. I sometimes use an expandable baton to run between seat cushions with a scooping motion so that it pushes out any items hidden there. As with every search, you should also be wearing latex gloves. Although they won’t protect you from a needle stick, it will protect you from the “heebie jeebies” that are on that syringe.

When you find a syringe, immediately put it in a syringe evidence tube like the one pictured. Don’t lay it on the hood of your car, place it on the ground, or anywhere else for that matter. If you find an uncapped syringe, scoop it up with the evidence tube so that the needle falls onto the styrofoam catch at the bottom. You’ll never even have to touch it. Whatever you do, don’t put the cap back on the syringe. Many needle sticks happen because the officer tried to put the cap on, but missed the needle and the needle went into their finger. This is the single biggest reason why officers get accidental sticks.

Sometimes, however, there is no other choice but to put the cap back on the syringe. To do this, place the cap down on a steady surface then move the needle down into the cap, being mindful that none of the officer’s body parts are in the path of the needle if it misses the cap. This is a one handed operation. This is often called ‘the one hand scoop technique’

After the Needle Stick

Even taking every precaution possible, it is still possible to get stuck with a needle. If this happens to you or one of your partners, treat it as an on duty injury. First, clean the affected area with soap and water, notify your supervisor and then seek immediate medical treatment. Transmission of HIV, hepatitis B virus (HBV), and hepatitis C virus (HCV) pose the greatest risk associated with accidental needlesticks to officers. Other examples of infection that can be transmitted by needlestick punctures are tetanus, tuberculosis, syphilis, malaria, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. With that said, the frequency of transmission of potentially transmissible diseases from a needle puncture is extremely low.

In some states, there are procedures that officers can follow to obtain a blood sample from the suspect that possessed the syringe you were stuck with. You can always ask for consent for a blood draw, or you can write a court order to obtain a blood sample to have tested. In some agencies, there is an exposure control officer that can handle a majority of these tasks.

Prevention efforts by officers to avoid a needle stick can go a long way to keep us safe. If you do get stuck by a needle, don’t fret. Just take the precautions listed here and take care of yourself.



Author: Keith Graves
Keith is the 2016 Narcotics Officer of the Year for the State of California and a prior winner of the MADD California Hero Award. Keith has been a Police Officer in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1990 and has years of experience as a Narcotics Detective and a Narcotics Unit Supervisor. Keith is a Drug Recognition Expert Instructor (IACP #3292) and teaches both the DRE course and the Drug Abuse Recognition Course. Keith has also taught at the Police Academy and has developed several drug courses for the California Narcotics Officers Association, California POST and California Colleges. Keith has held other assignments besides narcotics including Training Sergeant, Patrol Sergeant, COPPS Officer, Traffic Officer, and 20 years as a SWAT Team member and SWAT Team Leader. Keith has taught thousands of officers and businesses around the world about drug use, drug trends, compliance training and drug investigations. Keith earned a BA in Business Management from Saint Mary's College of California and a MA in Criminal Justice. Keith is the Founder and President of Graves & Associates, a company dedicated to providing drug training to law enforcement and private industry.

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