Florida Sheriff Posts Graphic Overdose Video to Combat Opioid Crisis

Florida Sheriff Posts Graphic Overdose Video to Combat Opioid Crisis

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  • October 27, 2017
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Sean Gannon and Kimberly McCaffrey after their arrest in Volusia County, Fla., this week.

It’s a video that might elicit a lingering sense of dread and, perhaps, déjà vu.

A sheriff’s deputy approaches a dark blue Nissan with its door ajar in a darkened convenience store parking lot. A man and a woman are passed out in the front seats, their bodies gaunt and motionless. In the back, a baby girl, 8 months old, is asleep, strapped in a car seat.

The video was posted on the Facebook page of the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office in Florida on Tuesday. It was taken during an arrest early that morning and shared as part of what county officials say is an effort to illuminate a plague of opioid addiction that has rattled their coastal community of 530,000, which includes Daytona Beach.

The issue has resonated nationally. On Thursday, President Trump officially declared a public health emergency in response to the escalating opioid crisis, allowing the release of federal grants to help combat what a Times analysis identified as the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. More than 64,000 people in the United States died from overdoses in 2016, according to federal data.

By Thursday evening the Facebook post from the sheriff’s office had been viewed more than 50,000 times and drawn hundreds of comments. In its stark nature, it echoed similar videos and images that have spread on social media in recent years, including two from last year: a viral photo of an unconscious couple in a car with an idle child in the back, which was shared by police in East Liverpool, Ohio; and a video of a wailing toddler in Lawrence, Mass., desperately trying to rouse her mother from what appears to be an overdose in the toy aisle of a dollar store.

“That small snippet of video epitomizes how deeply the opioid crisis is embedded in our society,” Sheriff Michael J. Chitwood of Volusia County said on Thursday of his department’s Facebook post. “This scourge is destroying families and these folks have thrown out all common sense in their craze for this drug.”

The man and the woman shown in the video — identified as Sean Gannon, 33, and Kimberly McCaffrey, 34 — were arrested on Tuesday and are being held in a county jail. Mr. Gannon has been charged with driving with a suspended license and possession of drug paraphernalia, according to a police report, and Ms. McCaffrey, who was identified as the mother of the 8-month-old, is charged with child neglect and possession of opiates. The child was placed in court-ordered custody of the Florida Department of Children and Families on Tuesday, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said.

A lawyer for Ms. McCaffrey couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon. A lawyer for Mr. Gannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Graphic images of overdose victims shared on social media have stirred controversy in the past. In the case of the East Liverpool photo last year, some criticized the police department for violating the privacy of those depicted.

Sheriff Chitwood said he had considered the potential harm that could befall the couple because his department exposed them during “an emotional and physical low.” But he said he felt the video’s potential to serve as a wake-up call outweighed individual privacy concerns. The department blurred their faces in the video, though their names and photographs have been made public.

Still, Sheriff Chitwood conceded that he was not sure whether cautionary tales on Facebook — even horrific or haunting ones — can be effective as deterrents.

“I don’t know if it does any good,” he said. “I hope it does. And I pray that it does.”

In Volusia County, where Mr. Chitwood was elected sheriff last year after serving as chief of police in Daytona Beach, there were 101 deaths from overdoses in 2016, he said, estimating that this year’s tally had already eclipsed that figure. In 2015, he said, there were 59 such deaths.

The sheriff recalled an episode last December in DeLand — the same city where Mr. Gannon and Ms. McCaffrey were found — in which a couple that had ingested five times the fatal dosage of the opioid fentanyl were found dead in a vehicle parked on the side of the road. In the back seat, there were three surviving children, all under the age of 6.

Sheriff Chitwood, who said he had spent 30 years in law enforcement and who has a son-in-law with an opioid addiction, struggled to make sense of what was happening in his community. “Crack cocaine pales in comparison to this,” he said.

With Mr. Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency, the sheriff said he was hopeful that federal funding could bolster local efforts to stem the spread of the drugs. “He’s a little late,” Sheriff Chitwood said of Mr. Trump, “but I’m glad he’s coming to the party.”

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