NEW YORK CITY — The NYPD is planning to establish a special “Opioid Squad” to help combat the city’s heroin and oxycodone epidemic, DNAinfo New York has learned.
The initiative comes just weeks after the city completed 2016 with more than 1,000 New Yorkers dying from narcotics, and primarily opioid-based drugs such as heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone.
The overdose death toll is nearly three times the city’s murder tally last year, which was 335.
Officials say the NYPD will staff a special unit of two dozen detectives, most with narcotics and homicide backgrounds, dedicated solely to probing these cases with the purpose of targeting the dealers, rather than leaving the investigations scattered around the city to whatever precinct detective squad might catch them.
The move also centralizes the cases under an NYPD supervisor, who reports directly to top brass and federal authorities.
“There is an epidemic and we are going to do something about it,” a top police official told DNAinfo New York's "On the Inside," explaining that the new unit will provide a central focus and dedication to the mission.
“Of course, there are drug abusers with long histories of use and deterioration and we can't attribute their deaths necessarily to the dealer," he added. "But where we can find the dealers who souped up their drugs, or knew they were already harming people and continued selling, we are going to do whatever we can to charge them, and even with murder where it applies.”
The new initiative will work closely with federal authorities because federal anti-drug statutes and codes specifically relate to fatal drug overdoses.
Just last week, the NYPD teamed up with Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara's office to charge a Bronx man, Fabrice Diaz, federally because he allegedly ran a heroin operation that delivered drugs to the home of Robert Vivolo, 23, of City Island, who overdosed in October 2016.
The federal charge of selling drugs that result in someone's death carries a penalty of between 20 and 30 years in prison, and possibly life, officials say.
In 2015, Bharara’s prosecutors in White Plains obtained convictions against three men who were packaging a poisonous confection of heroin laced with fentanyl under the brand name “Breaking Bad,” after the popular television series.
The trio’s operation led to the death of one user. Their text messages showed they knew they had killed the man, but they continued selling their toxic mixture and two more people, a man and a woman, died the same day in separate overdoses.
"[The suspects] chose again and again, to sell lethal heroin laced with fentanyl for profit, even after realizing that ‘Breaking Bad’ branded drugs were killing people,” Bharara said at the time. The suspects faced life in federal prison.
Drug overdoses historically have been treated primarily as individual incidents, with victims often viewed as responsible for their own deaths, such as the high profile heroin overdose of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014. His dealer was never prosecuted.
But the epidemic involving opioids has changed the landscape because of the skyrocketing death tolls here and across the country.
Officials say that roughly 80 Americans die from opioid narcotics every day, with almost 550 a week, 2,400 a month and 30,000 each year.
“More Americans now die from overdoses than car accidents or guns, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of overdose related emergency room visits each year,“ Bharara said after the "Breaking Bad" arrest.
Another top police official pointed out that the NYPD’s heightened efforts will “not only get the people responsible for these tragedies, but hopefully send a message and deter others from selling."
The situation in the Big Apple, particularly in Staten Island, has been so alarming that the city has equipped first responders with the drug Naloxone — which essentially reverses the effects of an overdose.
The drug has already been credited with saving scores of peoples' lives, and without it the death toll could have been even higher.
The NYPD and the city are mulling a public service education campaign to work with the law enforcement action, sources say.