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Aaron Williams

Senior Director, Practice Improvement & Consulting

The Intersection of Criminal Justice, Race and Addiction: The Case of Harold Easter

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Lost in the shuffle of the global pandemic, George Floyd’s murder and the fight for social justice is the case of Harold Easter, a 41-year-old Black man in North Carolina who died of an apparent cocaine overdose while in police custody after being arrested for drug possession and a traffic violation. Video footage of Mr. Easter’s arrest and tragic death in January 2020 was released nearly 9 months after the incident. The disturbing events shown on the more than five hours of video raised difficult questions about the intersection of drug use, race and the criminal justice system.

On the morning of Jan. 23, 2020, Harold Easter was stopped by police after allegedly making a drug sale. As officers approach the car, they appear to see Easter ingest cocaine. Easter is also heard on the video saying that he may have used cocaine and marijuana at some point prior to the arrest.

As police take Easter into custody, he repeatedly suggests that he is dehydrated, his mouth is dry and that he needs to urinate. Despite these “warning signs,” the officers do not call for a medical evaluation. Ultimately, he is taken to an interview room at the police station where his feet are shackled to the floor and he is left mostly unattended for the better part of an hour.

During this time, he asks for water and complains about being “hot.” After about 40 minutes he is seen slumping over the interview table moaning and within two minutes, he falls off the table onto the floor and begins having a seizure. It would be another seven minutes before officers notice and begin providing assistance.

Easter was rushed to the hospital where he was admitted to the emergency room and died three days later of cocaine intoxication. While no charges were brought against the police officers who arrested Easter, both the police chief and the district attorney cited several violations of departmental policies and procedures in Easter’s custodial care. All five officers involved in the arrest were recommended for termination but resigned before their cases could be reviewed.

As I reflected upon the circumstances of Harold Easter’s arrest and tragic death, and how it could have been prevented, a question began to emerge.

Did race play a role in Harold Easter’s arrest and subsequent death?

While we do not know for certain why Easter ingested a large amount cocaine before his arrest, a reasonable assumption would be that it was to avoid arrest and prosecution for drug possession. We know that Black people are arrested and prosecuted for drug related crimes at disproportionately higher rates despite using drugs at rates comparable to that of White people.

A 2014 analysis by Human Rights Watch indicated Black adults accounted for just 14% of those who used drugs in the previous year – a number comparable to drug use among White adults – but accounted for close to a third of those arrested for drug possession. Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. Beyond arrest and incarceration, drug convictions pose an array of problems with the potential denial of child custody, voting rights, employment, business loans, student aid, public housing, and other public assistance after incarceration.

Science tells us that substance use is a public health issue that should be addressed though strategies that reduce harm, engage people where they are and provides appropriate services when and where they are needed.

I have spoken to dozens of law enforcement officials over my career in the addiction treatment field and a common refrain is “We can’t arrest our way out of this drug problem.” Yet the current reality in the U.S. seems clear – our drug laws and their enforcement often hang as a cudgel over the heads of Black and Brown people who use drugs, limiting their options, increasing the risk of harm to themselves and others and reducing their chances for long-term success and recovery.

We will never know if better trained officers who recognized the signs and symptoms of drug overdose would have reacted differently to Easter’s complaints about dehydration and overheating and offered aid sooner. Nor will we know if the officers who arrested Easter would have behaved differently if Easter had been White. But we do know that unless we more aggressively address the racial inequities in the enforcement drug policy in America, cases like Harold Easter’s will continue to occur.

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