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Am J Public Health. 2015 Sep;105(9):1872-9. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2015.302681. Epub 2015 Jul 16.

Police Encounters Among Needle Exchange Clients in Baltimore: Drug Law Enforcement as a Structural Determinant of Health.

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Leo Beletsky is with the School of Law and Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern University, Boston, MA. At the time of the study, Jess Cochrane was with the Northeastern University School of Law and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. Chris Serio-Chapman, Jennifer Han, and Natanya Robinowitz were with the Baltimore City Health Department, Baltimore, MD. Susan G. Sherman and Anne L. Sawyer were with the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. Marina Smelyanskaya is an independent consultant in Baltimore.



We piloted a monitoring mechanism to document police encounters around programs targeting people who inject drugs (PWID), and assessed their demographic predictors at 2 Baltimore, Maryland, needle exchange program (NEP) sites.


In a brief survey, 308 clients quantified, characterized, and sited recent police encounters. Multivariate linear regression determined encounter predictors, and we used geocoordinate maps to illustrate clusters.


Within the past 6 months, clients reported a median of 3 stops near NEP sites (interquartile range [IQR] = 0-7.5) and a median of 1 arrest in any location (IQR = 0-2). Three respondents reported police referral to the NEP. Being younger (P = .009), being male (P = .033), and making frequent NEP visits (P = .02) were associated with reported police stops. Among clients reporting arrest or citation for syringe possession, Whites were significantly less likely than non-Whites to report being en route to or from an NEP (P < .001). Reported encounters were clustered around NEPs.


Systematic surveillance of structural determinants of health for PWID proved feasible when integrated into service activities. Improved monitoring is critical to informing interventions to align policing with public health, especially among groups subject to disproportionate levels of drug law enforcement.

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