Having identified gaps in implementation of Rhode Island's syringe access law and police occupational safety education, public health and police professionals developed police training to boost legal knowledge, improve syringe access attitudes, and address needlestick injuries. Baseline data (94 officers) confirmed anxiety about needlestick injuries, poor legal knowledge, and occupational risk overestimation. Before training, respondents believed that syringe access promotes drug use (51%), increases likelihood of police needlestick injuries (58%), and fails to reduce epidemics (38%). Pretraining to posttraining evaluation suggested significant shifts in legal and occupational safety knowledge; changes in attitudes toward syringe access were promising. Training that combines occupational safety with syringe access content can help align law enforcement with public health goals. Additional research is needed to assess street-level effect and to inform intervention tailoring.

▪Baseline data from an in-service training to align policing and public health efforts targeting injecting drug users in Rhode Island suggested that police have negative attitudes toward syringe access initiatives, poor knowledge of syringe possession law, and inaccurate assessment of occupational risk related to needlestick injuries, paralleled by high anxiety toward this risk.

▪In-service 30-minute training combining occupational safety information with public health content significantly improved trainees' legal and occupational safety knowledge; although positive, shifts in attitudes toward syringe access initiatives failed to reach significance.

▪Evaluations of future training should include linked pretraining and posttraining samples, limit participant distraction, and adopt parallel surveillance components to assess shifts on the street level.

▪Additional interventions, including management and peer-driven efforts, may be needed to help shift entrenched police attitudes toward syringe access initiatives.

IN RESPONSE TO THE confirmed effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of syringe access initiatives to reduce injection-related disease transmission, jurisdictions including Rhode Island authorized syringe exchange programs and deregulated over-the-counter syringe sales.1 Police in Rhode Island remained misinformed about these policies or boycotted them as enabling illegal injection drug use.2 Mistrust and lack of clarity about criminal law discourage injecting drug users (IDUs) from engaging in safe injection and acknowledging syringe possession during searches, leading to increased risk of police needlestick injuries.3 Police occupational safety trainings typically fail to address needlestick injuries.2

Public health researchers from Brown University used funding from a local foundation to collaborate with a municipal police department to educate officers on syringe policy and community-level disease prevention. To address key gaps in occupational knowledge and maximize police receptivity, the training bundled public health content with occupational safety information4 (see the box on the next page). The university team and the Police Department Planning and Training team jointly developed the curriculum. The designated Planning and Training sergeant was briefed on the material, practiced delivering the content, and received feedback from the principal investigator (L. B.) and departmental leadership. Training fidelity was ensured by the presence of the principal investigator at several sessions. This 30-minute module was part of a larger in-service training initiative, delivered over 6 sessions.

Assessment was conducted by self-administered paper survey immediately before and after training. Officers were asked whether syringe access initiatives promote needlestick injuries, drug use, and HIV and HCV spread. Occupational safety and procedure topics covered included HIV and HCV risks from needlestick injuries and information on basic occupational safety precautions when conducting searches. Officers' occupational anxiety was captured by a scale constructed from 2 questions: (1) “needlestick injuries are an important concern to me” and (2) “getting HIV or other infectious diseases from drug users is a big concern for me.” A legal knowledge question assessed awareness of syringe possession law. For ease of interpretation, descriptive results were dichotomized by grouping according to the 4 possible responses: “strongly agree” with “agree” and “strongly disagree” with “disagree” responses. To preserve information, ordinal responses (i.e., strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) were retained to examine the association between having undergone training and outcomes by using ordinal logistic regression. The significance level for all analyses was set at P < .05.

Individual responses could not be linked because of administrative difficulties, so baseline and posttraining data were treated as independent cross-sectional samples. Needlestick-resistant gloves were provided as an incentive for evaluation participation.


The training intervention used consisted of a 30-minute PowerPoint-assisted oral presentation by a departmental training specialist.

Topical domains covered include the following:

    Description of and rationale behind public health programs targeting injecting drug usexthe description of syringe exchange program components (with emphasis on wraparound services, including referrals to drug treatment); public health evidence that syringe exchange programs and pharmacy access to clean syringes help reduce the spread of blood-borne infections and improve cost-effectiveness of public health outreach; and evidence that syringe exchange programs may help avert occupational needlestick injuries among police.1

    Occupational safety, including basic virology and needlestick injuries after exposure procedures, such as the essentials of how HIV, HCV, and other blood-borne viruses are transmitted; relevant prevalence, incidence, and seroconversion risk statistics; basic prevention strategies for each exposure route; and departmental protocols for reporting and responding to accidental needlestick injuries.

    Laws, regulations, and procedures related to drug enforcement activities, such as implications of the liberalized syringe regimen on search activities; standards for considering syringe possession as probable cause for a search or evidence of illegal activity; and the importance of communicating the legality of syringe possession to IDUs during pat downs or other searches.

Note. See http://www.policingforhealth.org for the detailed description and materials.

Police practices are understood to substantially shape public health prevention efforts targeting IDUs, including syringe exchange programs.5,6 Beyond 2 small qualitative studies,2,7 however, little is known about police knowledge, attitudes, or other factors that may influence these practices. This evaluation represents the first quantitative assessment of police in this domain.

Table 1 shows that 94 officers (88% of all participants) responded to the baseline survey, and 78 (73%) responded to the posttraining survey. No significant demographic differences were observed between the baseline and posttraining respondents.


TABLE 1— Sociodemographic Description of Participating Police Officers, by Training Group: Rhode Island Law Enforcement Syringe Training Initiative, 2006

TABLE 1— Sociodemographic Description of Participating Police Officers, by Training Group: Rhode Island Law Enforcement Syringe Training Initiative, 2006

Baseline, % (n = 94)Posttraining, % (n = 78)
Age, y
    ≥ 4128.728.2
Years in department
    < 1055.850.6
    ≥ 1044.249.4
    African American3.31.3

aReferent group is the baseline group.

At baseline, respondents indicated that syringe access initiatives promote drug use (51%), increase the likelihood of police needlestick injuries (58%), and fail to reduce disease spread (38%). Only 7% correctly understood the Rhode Island syringe possession law. Six (6.4%) officers reported occupational needlestick injuries, and average occupational needlestick injuries anxiety was extremely high at 7.49 (SD = 1.04; observed range = 5–8; possible range = 1–8). African American and older officers were more likely to report lifetime needlestick injuries. Correct knowledge of occupational health risks from needlestick injuries varied by infectious disease: 92% correctly identified HCV transmission as the more likely risk inherent to needlestick injuries, but only 13% understood that the risk of HIV transmission from needlestick injuries is relatively low (Table 2).


TABLE 2— Descriptive Statistics and Crude Associations of Training Participation on Attitudes Toward Harm Reduction Programs, Knowledge of Health Risks From Needlestick Injuries, and Intended Behavior on Search Regulations: Rhode Island Law Enforcement Syringe Training Initiative, 2006

TABLE 2— Descriptive Statistics and Crude Associations of Training Participation on Attitudes Toward Harm Reduction Programs, Knowledge of Health Risks From Needlestick Injuries, and Intended Behavior on Search Regulations: Rhode Island Law Enforcement Syringe Training Initiative, 2006

OutcomesaBaseline, % (n = 94)Posttraining, % (n = 78)OR (95% CI)b
Harm reduction programs
Harm reduction programs do not promote drug use1.02 (0.59, 1.76)
Harm reduction programs do not increase risk of needlestick injuries for police1.17 (0.68, 2.03)
Harm reduction programs help reduce HIV and HCV spread1.26 (0.72, 2.21)
Health risks from needlestick injuries
HCV risk from needlestick injuries is relatively high0.91 (0.51, 1.62)
HIV risk from needlestick injuries is relatively low3.22*** (1.78, 5.83)
Search procedures and regulations
Would wear gloves when doing search1.68 (0.88, 3.18)
When drugs are not present, would not confiscate syringe9.16*** (4.80, 17.51)
Would not throw syringes down storm drain0.72 (0.32, 1.64)

Note. CI = confidence interval; OR = odds ratio.

aFor descriptive results, ordinal responses of outcomes are shown as binary here for ease of interpretation.

bFor ordinal regression analyses, responses were kept ordinal.

*P < .05; **P < .01; ***P < .001.

Compared with the baseline, respondents had greater odds of correctly reporting that HIV risk from needlestick injuries was not high (odds ratio [OR] = 3.22; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.78, 5.83) after training. Similarly, officers had greater odds of correctly stating after the training that syringes cannot be confiscated if drugs are not present (OR = 9.16; 95% CI = 4.80, 17.51; Table 2). Despite the presentation of extensive content on syringe access, respondents' attitudes and knowledge on these programs improved only slightly (no significant changes observed), underscoring entrenched cultural and professional beliefs.2,7

Low knowledge and poor attitudes about public health initiatives and regulations confirm earlier findings highlighting poor penetration of information in these domains among police.2 The finding that—even at baseline—trainees scored comparatively better on items related to occupational safety issues supports the promise of using occupational safety content as a vehicle to deliver a broader set of public health content. Nonetheless, opinion on public health topics was far from monolithic; cultivating relationships with well-informed and positively disposed officers can help facilitate better alignment between law enforcement and public health professionals.8 Our findings affirm that most officers before the training wrongly perceived HIV risk to be high from needlestick injuries despite the actual risk being low.9 This can be a source of unnecessary anxiety that adds to other stressors involved in law enforcement work,10 leading to additional hostility from police officers toward IDUs and syringe access initiatives.

If translated into street-level practice, improved knowledge of syringe possession law can facilitate better alignment between policing and HIV prevention targeting IDUs by reducing unjustified syringe confiscation and interference with syringe access initiatives.6 Simultaneously, the reduction in unauthorized confiscation of syringes can promote communication between police and IDUs, thus reducing the risk of occupational needlestick injuries.3 The fact that even in this small sample, African American officers faced significantly higher odds of reporting needlestick injuries may have important parallels to racial disparities in other occupational safety injuries.11

Limitations of this study included restricted funding, which constrained training and evaluation length and scope; inability to link baseline and posttraining responses, which hampered analytical capabilities; and 16% attrition, largely because of respondents being summoned to attend to administrative questions from the department. Attitudinal, knowledge, or other unobserved factors may have influenced the respondents' motivation to fill out a pretest but not the posttest survey, but there is no reason to believe that such an influence on attrition was systematic in this case. For example, it is not clear that positive attitudes toward syringe access initiatives make respondents any more likely to complete the posttraining questionnaire, compared with those whose negative attitudes may motivate the completion of the questionnaire to express one's protest. This study covered a small convenience sample of officers, limiting generalizability.

Data indicated that engaging police by bundling occupational safety with content addressing community-level disease prevention represents a promising structural intervention to harmonize law enforcement practices with public health goals, but additional research is needed to evaluate and tailor such training. Future evaluations should encompass larger samples; baseline and posttraining responses should be individually linked. Attrition should be minimized by restricting trainee distractions; shorter training may preserve effectiveness while minimizing attrition. Efforts should be made to pair training interventions with research to evaluate the effect of the training on the street level. Management and peer-driven interventions, such as those incentivizing police and public health collaboration and censuring unauthorized syringe confiscation and other practices that run counter to public health goals, may be needed to reinforce training messages and shift entrenched attitudes.


The training was supported by the Rhode Island Foundation and, in part, by the National Institute of Mental Health (award T32MH020031).

We thank the Pawtucket Police Department, Susan Macamara, Grace Macalino, PhD, and Jody Rich, MD, MPH, in and Rhode Island's Attorney General, Patrick Lynch. Thanks are also due to the members of Yale University Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS' Postdoctoral Writing Group for comments on this manuscript.

Note. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Institutes of Health, or the Rhode Island Foundation.

Human Participant Protection

Brown University's institutional review board reviewed and approved the project.


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Leo Beletsky, JD, MPH, Alpna Agrawal, PhD, Bruce Moreau, MA, Pratima Kumar, JD, MPH, Nomi Weiss-Laxer, MA, MPH, and Robert Heimer, PhDAt the time of the study, Leo Beletsky and Alpna Agrawal were with the Yale University Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, New Haven, CT. Bruce Moreau is with the Pawtucket Police Department, Pawtucket, RI. Pratima Kumar and Nomi Weiss-Laxer are with Brown University, Providence, RI. Robert Heimer is with the Yale University Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS and Yale School of Public Health “Police Training to Align Law Enforcement and HIV Prevention: Preliminary Evidence From the Field”, American Journal of Public Health 101, no. 11 (November 1, 2011): pp. 2012-2015.


PMID: 21940924