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Cover Story

Your Worst Nightmare

For many officers the greatest fear is not some punk's bullet; it's the business end of a junkie's dirty needle.

November 01, 2002  |  by Lois Pilant


You might think that getting stuck by a needle in the course of a shift would be the least of an officer's worries, especially when there are so many other things to worry about: like how fast a traffic stop can go bad; the irrationality of the players in a domestic violence call; the stupidity of the guy who flees the police and the risks inherent in a chase.

But talk to Officer Don Gause, an eight-year veteran of the Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Police Department, and he'll tell you that a needle stick or accidental exposure to HIV, hepatitis, or any other bloodborne pathogen is absolutely his greatest fear.

"On a traffic stop, you know the potential is there to be shot. On a domestic violence call, you know how fast a complainant can become a defendant. But to be stuck by a needle on a pat down, that's something else. If you get shot, you know right away if you're going to be all right or not. With a needle stick, you won't know for six months. That's scary."

How scary? Just ask Cpl. Darryl Bolke, a 14-year veteran of the Ontario (Calif.) Police Department. He says getting stuck by a needle "ranks right up there with the worst thing I've had to go through in my life."

Bolke was stuck on the index finger while searching a man he'd arrested for solicitation of a prostitute. Although he asked if the man had any sharp objects in his pocket, and although he noticed an object on the initial pat down, the object didn't feel like a syringe. It felt, he said, like a crack pipe. Bolke put his hand in the man's pocket and was immediately jabbed by a needle sticking out of a small, 2-inch piece of plastic that had been fashioned into a homemade syringe.

What made Bolke's situation worse was that it happened 10 years ago, when there was less information about HIV and other bloodborne diseases, when there were no prophylactic drugs given post exposure, and when getting a blood sample from the source meant fighting your way through a battery of privacy laws, the courts, and the medical community.

"I had no intimate contact with anyone in my family for three months following the first blood test. The crook was treated like the victim by the courts and the medical community, and I had no rights at all. I felt like I'd been victimized twice," Bolke says.

Times have changed. Today's officers are offered immunization with drugs like GlaxoSmithKline's Twinrix for Hepatitis A and B; education in the prevention of and protection from exposure to bloodborne pathogens and tuberculosis; personal protective equipment; training in search techniques that use a baton or the blade of the hand; and post-exposure counseling and medical care.

In addition, there are now laws that require the source to provide a blood sample on request or through a court order. Finally, today's officers have available an abundance of reassuring statistics that detail exposure rates and the rarity of exposure converting to a disease.

High Frequency, High Risk

Such precautions have not dispelled many officers' continuing fears of exposure to HIV, hepatitis, or tuberculosis. One reason is that in the context of risk management, exposure comes from job duties that are considered high frequency: arrests and physical searches; vehicle searches; blood and body fluids at accidents and crime scenes, just to name a few. Because exposure and subsequent conversion can be fatal, these activities are also considered high risk.

Added to this deadly mix is the fact that an officer probably will, during the course of a shift, come into contact with an infected person.

In 1996, an estimated 98,000 to 145,000 HIV-positive inmates were released from prisons and jails. Also in 1996, between 1.3 million and 1.4 million inmates released from prison or jail were infected with hepatitis C. That same year, approximately 155,000 released prisoners had current or chronic hepatitis B, while 566,000 were released with latent TB infection. In addition, between 12 and 35 percent of the total number of people in the United States with some sort of communicable diseases passed through a correctional facility.

And the one thing many of these disease carriers have in common is further contact with police. According to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 67 percent of the nearly 300,000 people released (from 15 test states) in 1994 were rearrested for a new offense, almost exclusively a felony or serious misdemeanor. They had accumulated 4.1 million arrest charges prior to their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 charges within three years of their release (an average of four new crimes each).

Given these figures, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to calculate that the inordinate number of infected releasees and the high rate of recidivism almost guarantees contact between an infected person and a police officer. Those numbers do not include contact with illegal aliens and the homeless, who often spend time in crowded, unventilated shelters that can be breeding grounds for diseases like tuberculosis and bacterial meningitis. It also doesn't include the drug addicted, a group that typically has little concern for health care or personal cleanliness, and even less concern for those who arrest them.

Lying in Wait


E Med Future’s NeedleZap is designed to destroy the needle on a hypodermic syringe so it can be safely stored as evidence.

For years, the scariest of infectious diseases was HIV. Today's nemesis, however, is hepatitis C (hep C), a virus that is spread by contact with the blood of an infected person and eventually causes liver disease. While health officials estimate that about 1 million people in the United States are HIV infected, about 3 million to 4 million Americans are infected with hep C.

At least 75 percent of the people infected with hep C don't even know it, according to Debbie Borst, a registered nurse who does in-service health care training for South Carolina police agencies. Those numbers held true in a recent statewide study that required a hep C test for tattoo artists renewing their licenses. The study revealed that more than 60 percent of those tested were infected with hep C and completely unaware.


Distributed by Hatch Corp., Gimbel Frisk and Search Gloves are disposable and needle and razor resistant.

"I call it the stealth virus," Borst says. "It can lie dormant for five to 20 years, and while it's doing that it's eating the liver cells. You may have some flu-like symptoms in the beginning, but when those go away, you are generally symptom free. Then one day you wake up with jaundiced skin, orange urine, and yellow eyeballs, or you may have liver cancer."

Hepatitis C was a stealth virus for health care professionals as well. The disease has been around for 50 years, since its first transmission was documented through blood transfusions during World War II. But the virus was only clinically identified in the late '80s when technology finally caught up with it.

Several factors make hep C a deadlier adversary than HIV. For example, HIV cannot live outside the body, whereas the hep C virus can live outside the body for up to seven days. One drop of HIV-positive blood contains about eight live viral particles, while one drop of hep C-infected blood contains about 100, making transmission of the virus that much more likely.

Hepatitis A and B are equally virulent, but less likely to be transmitted. Although both can live for longer periods outside the body, public safety and health care employers are now required to offer immunization against hepatitis B. Hepatitis A, the oldest form of the virus, is spread by ingesting contaminated food or water. Although police officers are certainly not immune, their chances of exposure to hep A or hep B are smaller than those with hep C and HIV.

Tuberculosis and bacterial meningitis also have been pinpointed as problems for law enforcement officers. These are airborne diseases that are transmitted by breathing or coughing on someone. Among law enforcement officers, the most susceptible to these diseases are those who work in prisons and jails, since transmission generally requires that the bacterial count build to a certain level before infection.

According to Laura Herring, the occupational infectious disease nurse for the city of Portland, it would take longer than a ride to the stationhouse for someone to become infected with TB or bacterial meningitis. "The people who might be vulnerable would be those who have to have face-to-face interaction with an infected individual over a period of several hours," she says.

Tags: Search and Seizure, Frisking Suspects, Drug Users, Officer Safety

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Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Charles Samuel Bowen @ 12/21/2008 12:49 PM

I have a hard time when I see no feed back on this issue and do realize from personal experience that after years of repeated exposures that most officers become complacent and unaware of the possibility of hepatitis c 1a the blood borne illness that at this time is not curable. I am now 59 years old and did work for the State of Georgia department of corrections as a probation field officer for close to 15 years and was in contact with known infected and sick inmates placed in community corrections custody. I was one of those who did more than was in the job description. my case load was about 200 or more criminals who where sexual predators or violent offenders, they where assigned to special supervision and a very intensive set of rules. I truely believe that I got hepc1a form one of my coustomers and when I reported it I was ABANDONED by those who where suppose to step up and get help for me. My physical when I went to work was clear and I was healthy as a horse. I have been fight fighting this battle since 2004 and am still being put off by the state att. next hearing date Jan. 19,09. After that I am sure I will need to persue a class action to get the state to change their rules and give us some help. This is a problem that I have been working on for 4 years full time and have traveled most directions or as many as I could think of to get the info I need and still need help. The story is alot longer and needs to be told for all those who have gone before us and where told to go home to suffer and die.

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