Harm Reduction in Policing and Addiction

Stanton Peele By: Dr. Stanton Peele

Posted on June 15th, 2020 - Last updated: September 28th, 2023
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Harm Reduction is the elimination of worst-case scenarios with drugs and alcohol. Can the same concept apply to policing?

 The Life Process Program utilizes harm reduction techniques in addictions.  These involve cases where people are not abstaining completely from drugs or alcohol.  But rather than accept that this means the person will end up in jail, a hospital, or a grave, we assist people to stop short of their worst-case scenarios.   

Example: A person has been told not to drink.  They do drink.  In the first place, can they stop drinking before they become intoxicated? 

We think that they can, and we help people to learn how to do this.  But let’s say that step fails.   Harm reduction never quits.  After drinking, even drinking excessively, harm reduction principles apply. To wit, the person now shouldn’t go out in public, and especially they shouldn’t drive, while intoxicated.  Getting drunk was a negative.  Driving drunk — with its possibilities of causing harm, even death, to the driver and innocent others, along with the possibilities of losing a driver’s license, being arrested, and going to jail — are avoided. 

So taking the person’s car keys and letting them “sleep it off”, driving the person home, calling an Uber — are harm reduction techniques we are all familiar with. 

The harm reduction helper and the drinker can then begin anew, without penalty, to improve the person’s drinking outcomes from where the person left off, none the worse for the relapse, or bad drinking episode. 

It remains an isolated, bad incident, not a life-threatening debacle.  Who can argue against that?

Harm Reduction and Policing 

Which calls to mind the recent tragedy of the death of Rayshard Brooks, 27 at the hands of the Atlanta police.   

Last Friday the police were called to a Wendy’s restaurant where Mr. Brooks had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through service lane.  Two police officers arrived and spent 25 minutes interacting calmly with Mr. Brooks. They gave Mr. Brooks a sobriety test, which he failed.  

Then matters quickly deteriorated. Cameras recorded the officers attempting to handcuff Brooks. Instead, he broke free, wrestled with the cops, stole one of their Tasers, ran away from them, turned to shoot the Taser at one cop, and in response the other officer shot and killed Brooks.

 Is there any way this chain of events — which included the death of Brooks, the resignation of Atlanta’s police chief, the firing of (and potential criminal action against) the shooting police officer, and resulting unrest in Atlanta and throughout the United States — could have been broken?

 Using Harm Reduction for Law Enforcement

 Can police be trained in harm reduction techniques? 

The Stages of Harm Reduction in a DUI 

  1. Obviously, the best option would have been to take Brooks into custody without incident.  Perhaps simply putting him in the back seat of the police car, without handcuffs, would have made this happen, instead of Brooks struggling to avoid the cuffs and breaking free. The cops could even have put Brooks — who was well-behaved and polite before the police tried to cuff him — in an Uber.
  2. Once Brooks resisted, if the officers would simply have let him go, no struggle would have ensued, the Taser wouldn’t have been stolen, and Brooks wouldn’t have been shot and killed.  What is the worst that could have happened? Since the police had his car, Brooks would have wondered around, perhaps, but gone home on his own eventually, where the police could have come later or the next day to apprehend him under controlled conditions.
  3. Given the struggle, and even Brooks’ taking the Taser, the cops could still have let Brooks go. What is the worst that could have happened? Brooks hadn’t committed a violent crime and he wasn’t armed with a deadly weapon, so there was seemingly no issue of protecting the public.  He may have been intoxicated and overly excited.  But with no vehicle or lethal weapon, what more harm could have ensued, especially compared with what actually happened?

 A Harm Reduction Way of Thinking 

Police are trained to place handcuffs on a suspect.  They are instructed in techniques for restraining recalcitrant arrestees.  But are they missing a bigger-picture training: “How can I minimize the dangers and negative consequences of this situation while still fulfilling my ultimate law enforcement responsibilities?”

 Take another example: What if they had stopped Mr. Brooks, or someone else, in his car and Brooks or the other person had driven off. Pursuing Brooks (in this scenario not knowing whether he was intoxicated or not) seems likely to create the potential for the most dangerous outcome: a high-speed chase endangering those in both cars and innocent bystanders.  Allowing Mr. Brooks or other driver instead to drive as best he could to wherever he was going may be the safest option in this situation, then following up using his license to find him to apply legal penalties.

 Note: Mr. Brooks, by falling asleep in his car, had seemingly already created his own harm-reduction resolution.  If the police could have moved the car to a parking lot next to Wendy’s take-out window, Brooks might have slept his “drunk” off and, when he awoke, simply proceeded home safely, where he could have been apprehended later.

According to the New York Times, after failing the sobriety test, “Mr. Brooks asks the officers if he can lock his car up under their supervision and walk to his sister’s house, which is a short distance away. ‘I can just go home,’ he says.” And he was the intoxicated one!

 In this case, the police intervention created all of the harms: the shooting death, the resignation and firing — and possible criminal liability — of law enforcement personnel, the burning of the Wendy’s, urban unrest. It’s almost as though the police were practicing harm enhancement.

 We are not law enforcement experts.  We know something about minimizing the harms from problematic drinking.  By creating a whole new mindset called Law-Enforcement Harm Reduction, we hope to expand policing alternatives and reduce the ubiquitous harms we see occurring due to policing all around us.

Stanton Peele

Dr. Stanton Peele, recognized as one of the world's leading addiction experts, developed the Life Process Program after decades of research, writing, and treatment about and for people with addictions. Dr. Peele is the author of 14 books. His work has been published in leading professional journals and popular publications around the globe.


  • Stanton Peele says:

    Diane, I admire your openness — to your friend and life.

    I have three questions to ask your opinion on.

    Do you think this man wants to change his situation?

    I’m pretty sure that your answer is “no.”

    Can you be satisfied with the relationship the way that it is?

    Your answer seems to be “no.” Is that a hard “no”?

    My last question is “What kind of relationship would you like to have — with this or any other man/person?” Please put some thought into this. What must it contain? Regular physical contact? A desire by the man/person to be with you? Someone you can turn to when you want contact, companionship, affection, desire?

    I’m going to stop asking you questions now. If you have solidified your idea of what you want in a relationship — your goals, values, needs — perhaps that step can clarify for you how to proceed in this relationship and in life.

    Well, maybe one more question — Would you share your list of needs and desires with this man? He does seem to value contact with you and perhaps he could try to meet your needs.

    With warm regards,

  • Diane Birkenmeier says:

    I’m in a long distance relationship with a 65 yr old vet in a vets home for alcoholics. i knew him many years ago and he was a very nice man.
    we went our separate ways and he found me on FB. He has been in there for 15 yrs and attends AA meetings twice a week. I would like to have a normal relationship with him but he seems content where he is. we text a lot and he calls me every day. I don’t understand why he wants to stay there. He seems like a normal intelligent man. But he is afraid to leave his safe place. i try talking to him about it but nothing works.
    Should i continue this relationship or let him go?

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