NEW YORK ICTY - In an unprecedented step to end the opioid epidemic, the New York Police Department has increased staffing at its crime lab by more than 40 percent.
Eyewitness News obtained exclusive access to the lab as many of the 50 new hires began training this month in the hopes of being fully operational by early 2018.
"We're doing this because people are dying across the city in record numbers and we have to do something about it," said NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce.
These new hires are just part of a $17.9 million plan Commissioner O"Neill laid out in response to the opioid crisis earlier this year and a small fraction of the measures called for by Mayor Bill de Blasio as part of Healing NYC.
Deputy Chief Emanuel Katranakis, commanding officer of the forensic investigations division, said the new staffing will help his department address an already overwhelming workload as the department embarks on a new goal to test all drug evidence obtained from overdose cases.
Eyewitness News requested all of the reported overdoses to NYPD on a recent weekend in September and the calls for help averaged close to one an hour.
"It's been a rollercoaster," Katranakis said.
Unintended overdose deaths have increase by roughly 143% since 2010 according to the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
Katranakis blames the increased rate of overdoses in part to the increased use of a deadly substance called fentanyl in manufacturing the opioids which has been sold as street drugs, counterfeit pills, even masked in apparent nasal sprays.
"I think that the drug trade, the illicit drug trade, that individuals have established that there's a vein to increase their profits, using fentanyl in contrast to heroin and they're capitalizing on that, " Katranakis said. "We want to take it off the streets and we want to bring these people to justice."
Data obtained by Eyewitness News from the NYPD indicates the crime lab has seen a nearly 800% increase in drugs testing positive for fentanyl since 2015.
In addition to more drugs, Katranakis said the drugs they test are becoming increasingly complex at times containing up to 12 different controlled substances mixed together.
He walked us through two floors of testing rooms where the evidence is prepped and put through a series of examinations.
Katranakis said understanding the exact components of the drug will help them determine which combinations are the most deadly to warn the public and also identify a nexus between cases to help detectives on the street track dealers.
"The information we can learn from evidence collected is critical in the overarching effort to reduce overdoses in the city of New York," he said.
The testing also indicates where certain drugs are concentrated in the city.
Eyewitness News requested the number of invoices found to be containing fentanyl by borough, which revealed an increase in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan this year, but a decrease in Queens and Staten Island.
"This is important for forensic intelligence," Katranakis said. "We want to report that out to investigators in a timely manner."
Addiction treatment advocate Susan Zilberman said she is encouraged by these new police efforts.
Zilberman founded Gregg's Gift, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping young people with addiction after losing her son, Gregg, to an opioid overdose in 2008.
"It makes me very, very sad. I would not want any other family to suffer the way that we have losing our son," Zilberman said. "It really, literally, broke me in half. I remember screaming, just screaming, and saying this is not possible."
Zilberman also started the New York chapter of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), which supports the family and friends of people who have overdosed.
Zilberman said beating the opioid epidemic will require more than the police. It will require the entire community coming together to address the problem.
"It's an equal opportunity killer this disease. It can absolutely affect anyone. As long as communication is open, there's much more chance for situations like Gregg's not to happen," she said.