Richard Ross

Police Commissioner Richard Ross said opioids are killing more Blacks in Philadelphia than gunshots.


Once perceived as a largely white rural problem, more African-Americans in Philadelphia are dying as a result of opioid-related overdoes than they are of homicides.

According to numbers compiled by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, 269 African-Americans overdosed in 2016 as part of a total of 907 opioid-related deaths. That same year, 235 African-Americans were victims of homicide in the city.

Through the first nine months of 2017 there were 248 African-American deaths due to opioid-related overdoses. Conversely, in all of 2017 there were 253 African-American homicides, according to the Philadelphia Police Department.

The Department of Public Health reported 956 opioid-related deaths through the first three quarters of 2017. However, projections by the agency are that there will be approximately 1,200 total overdose deaths. That projects to as many as 330 African-American deaths via overdose.

Last year the city recorded 313 homicides, the most since 331 were slain in 2012.

“A lot of people don’t know that,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard J. Ross said Friday during a Philadelphia Tribune Editorial Board meeting. “In this city, more people of color are dying from Opioids than they do of gunshots.”

Philadelphia, particularly North Philadelphia east of Broad Street, has become a hotspot for Opioids on the East Coast. Much of this is attributable, Ross said, to the focus that has come by way of media attention here such as an NBC Nightly News broadcast that highlighted librarians from the McPherson Square Park branch in Kensington administering the anti-overdose drug Narcan to an overdose victim.

This highlights the problem, Ross said.

“You would think that if we put a spotlight on an area where there have been ‘x’ number of overdoses that the average addicted person would stay away from that,” Ross said. “No, they flock to that – even if it’s killing people – because now they know where they can get the best drugs. It’s a weird dynamic but it’s real, and it lends itself to a major issue.”

Opioid deaths among African-Americans is not just a growing problem in Philadelphia; nationally it is on the rise as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the death rate for all Americans from Opioids is up with Black Americans experiencing a 4 percent increase.

According to the 2017 report, the drug death rate is rising most steeply among Blacks, with those between the ages of 45 and 64 among the hardest hit.

Drug deaths among Blacks in Urban counties rose by 41 percent in 2016, far outpacing any other racial or ethnic group. In those same counties, the drug death rate among whites rose by 19 percent.

There are also indicators that African Americans here and in other urban areas are more frequently using fentanyl, a synthetic Opiod. In 2016, for instance, Cleveland, 58 of Cleveland’s 399 fatal fentanyl overdoses were African-Americans. Officials believe the drug was being covertly introduced to the African-American population there and elsewhere through cocaine.

Ross has continued to struggle with safe injection sites, or comprehensive user engagement sites, facilities that would allow people to use drugs and facilitate access to medical care and drug treatment. Once staunchly against it, the epidemic has him looking at it a little differently now.

“I will tell you when I don’t have the answer,” Ross said. “People are dying all over the place. And as a public safety official I do view that as part of my responsibility. I’m not saying that means I should be for safe injections sites. But I struggle with watching people drop and die with the frequency that they are.”

(6) comments

Cecil A. Hankins

Instead of looking at the easy way out of a crisis that involves opening the doors to liability for the taxpayers of the city and supporting the addiction of individuals with illegal substances, why not look internally at the fail system of drug treatment prevention and intervention in this city. Do we need another layer of bureaucracy in this city? I think not. If only the city would work with the state office of Drug Programs and separate the Office of Addictive Services with one head responsible for the coordination of Drug and Alcohol abuse perhaps we can see a different in drug deaths, but first this administration must look at it current system of fee-for -service and eliminate the buying and selling of addicted individuals to the highest buyers to fatten their pockets as they pretend to treat folk with addictions. This is all about the almighty dollar and no one really care, it will get worst if the data change to more black folk dying. We spend 1.18 billion dollars a year on Behavioral health services alone, and helping addicts get high on illegal chemicals is the best answer we can come up with?


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I'm a hard working tax paying single mother holding down 2 jobs to make it & I too have been diagnosed with an illness.

I don't receive my blood pressure mess for free to help me from stroking or going into cardiac arrest and die. So, providing safe injections sites disgruntles me deeply. Obesity is an illness, but no-one has a free program for overweight people to get help. They suffer from diagnosis that lead to deathly illness.

Addiction & its issues are problematic...I do agree. It just seems provisions are continually being made to preserve the life an addict deppreciates because they're recycled through recovery programs. They're able to get free health benefits such as eyeglasses, dental work, gym memberships & more off taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile taxpayers are forced to choose between which necessity is most important.

I don't desire for addicts to die. However, I do desire for healthcare reform to extend the same services to all.


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