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To Serve And To Stigmatize?

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The Los Angeles Police Department's motto "To Protect and to Serve" was etched into my mind while I was still a kid living on the other side of the country.

You see, I'm of a certain television generation that grew up seeing these words emblazoned on the door of the police cruiser on the TV-series Adam 12. Long before Cops brought reality TV for a ride-along, each episode of Adam 12 depicted a dramatized version of a real-life LAPD incident report. Naturally, the show used professional actors and changed the names to protect the innocent.

Now flash forward to today. How would you or your children feel about approaching a real police car with a real emergency if it had the words "To Serve and to Stigmatize" painted brightly on its doors?

You're probably thinking, "What a ridiculous question. That would never happen."

Of course, no police department would choose such a negative statement as its motto. But there's a disturbing trend brewing that, if allowed to continue, is likely to bring that phrase -- or words to that extent -- to mind for many members of the general public.

In recent months, a number of photos and videos have surfaced that publicly shame and stigmatize unfortunate citizens who've crossed some unforgivable line in the eyes of a number of law enforcement officers and members of the general public.

First, this past summer a public transportation police officer, frustrated and obviously unhappy with working conditions, took a photo of man who'd defecated on himself and was lying next to his wheelchair. The officer then posted the photo to social media with the words, "You think your job is [expletive]!" to go with the image. She added that the man in the photo was "well known to police" and had a lengthy record.

Next, in rather quick succession, two different police departments from two different states released photos of allegedly drug-addicted adults apparently overdosing with a child nearby. Tragically, in one instance, a man and woman sit unconscious in the front of a running vehicle while a 4-year old boy, the woman's grandson, looks on from the backseat. And no less shocking, in the other situation, a little 2-year old girl tugs helplessly at her mother who's collapsed in a store aisle.

It's clear that tragedy struck in these people's lives well before the respective law enforcement officials shared these images. But what should be of great concern to us all is the fact that the people sworn to protect and serve our communities feel justified in using stigma to make a point -- with little regard to the swift, powerful, and indelible consequences for the individuals in the images.

To return to the three examples, in the first case, the department suspended the transportation officer while an investigation took place, but in the interim the officer's name and identity were also released. Ultimately, both the officer and the man in the photo wound up suffering from some form of public stigmatization. Moreover, the story drew the attention of a number of civil rights advocates who voiced their concern over a potential organizational culture in which it's okay to ridicule people.

However, in the other two instances involving alleged opioid overdoses, local law enforcement officials deemed it in the public's best interest to publish the shocking images. One of the police departments justified its actions by stating that though the little boy involved couldn't speak out, the image would hopefully prevent others from using heroin in the presence of children. In addition, they felt the images served an educational purpose by showing the public what law enforcement is dealing with on a daily basis.

Sadly, in the aftermath of both of these cases, there hasn't been anywhere near the same hue and cry from civil rights experts as there was for the gentleman found next to his wheelchair.

This is where most readers, like well-intentioned law enforcement officials, will note the children involved deserve better. And without a doubt, they do.

But what about the adults? What about their rights and wellbeing?

Let's face it: if you found a parent suffering an epileptic seizure or an asthma attack in a store with a young child looking on helplessly, would you be inclined to take a picture of the situation and post it online?

Probably not. But despite addiction being recognized by the medical profession as a brain disease, society is far from ready to treat it as such. Notwithstanding scientific evidence that addiction changes the way the brain works and results among other things in impaired judgment and behavioral control, the majority of people believe addiction is within the individual's control. They're convinced people affected by addiction are to blame for their situation and actions. They don't see individuals suffering from a disease; all they see are stigmatizing labels.

Now imagine this: you're made aware that someone you love has tried heroin once before. You happen upon this person just as he or she is about to try it for a second time. Would you try to stop him or her? Or would you see "an addict" instead of the person you love? I wonder, how many jabs of a needle does it take for us to forget the identity lying crushed within an addiction?

Opioid addiction isn't a choice; it's a disease. What's more, it's a disease that's in no small part caused by our health care system. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in 2012, a total of 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids -- enough to give every U.S. adult a bottle of pills and then some -- and 80 percent of heroin users initially misused prescription painkillers. Plus, addiction doesn't discriminate: anyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, religion, education, and income can become addicted.

Those who believe publicly shaming addicts online is permissible haven't been trained to recognize how truly destructive digital stigma is. Any addict who, after being shamed online, manages to become sober and starts to rebuild his or her life will forever be disadvantaged not only by addiction, but also by the consequences of being stigmatized. That's why using social media as a modern stockade to stigmatize and shame those suffering from addiction sets a destructive public precedent.

The opioid crisis is destroying families and lives. Let's stop adding stigma to this deadly mix. Instead, let's all think carefully and humanely before posting anything that has the potential to severely fracture someone's identity -- not to mention undermine the trust between police and the communities they work so hard to protect.