A high-ranking Long Island police official with years on the front lines of the region’s drug wars testified Tuesday that prescription pill abuse that became problematic starting about two decades ago fueled what has turned into today’s opioid epidemic.
Nassau County Assistant Police Chief Chris Ferro described the increase in overdose deaths as a seemingly ever-rising tide after taking the witness stand in a civil trial in Central Islip.
"It was almost like pushing sand against the surf," Ferro said of law enforcement’s ongoing battle against drug overdoses as years went by.
The assistant chief testified as a witness for the plaintiffs as part of a lawsuit that Nassau and Suffolk counties and the state brought against pharmaceutical companies and distributors for allegedly causing the crisis.
The parties are trying to recover millions of dollars spent on drug treatment, recovery and prevention and to hold the companies responsible for the death and misery the epidemic created.
But the companies say they're not responsible for the epidemic and are being made scapegoats for parties including health regulators who encouraged opioid use and doctors who overprescribed painkillers.
Some companies agreed to a $1.1 billion settlement and last week were dismissed from the lawsuit. The deal is part of a proposed $26 billion national settlement with manufacturers and distributors of opioids. Allergan Finance, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo International and ANDA Pharmaceutical remain part of the case.
Ferro also testified Tuesday that the first arrest he made in his police career was a crack bust on Christmas Day by Radio City Music Hall while a rookie NYPD officer in 1986.
He said he went on to do undercover narcotics work for that agency before joining Nassau’s police force in 1993. Ferro then participated in drug investigations as part of his duties while climbing the agency’s ranks before eventually assuming command of its narcotics and vice squad in 2016.
The number of opioid overdoses then "shocked my conscience," Ferro testified.
He described how he spoke to substance abuse experts, detectives and drug addicts about the problem after taking the lead on the department’s strategy for fighting the epidemic.
"A lot of these addicts were everyday kids, who played sports, who were in college," the assistant chief said.
Besides holding dozens of community meetings, Ferro said Nassau police implemented a strategy that included "overdose aftercare visits." Detectives would go to the homes of people who survived overdoses and speak to them — gathering information on dealers and even taking some of the survivors to drug treatment centers.
"Nassau County was facing something we had never faced before," Ferro said, recalling how a multi-prong approach to the epidemic paid off with a decline in overdoses in Nassau in 2018.
But the police official said that decline was short-lived, and the numbers climbed again, including to a record level overdoses in 2020.
"It hasn’t stopped," Ferro added.
Ferro described the formation of the Long Island Heroin Task Force in 2016 and its efforts to stem the opioid scourge — an epidemic he said was spurred by a crackdown on the overprescribing of opioid medication, leading to the rise of heroin and then fentanyl.
During a cross-examination, Ferro acknowledged that several "unscrupulous" doctors who were busted in local opioid-related cases had been licensed by the state while carrying out their behavior.
The assistant chief also testified that he believed "all opioids" were the biggest threat in Nassau. But Ferro later acknowledged that he’d said during a deposition that heroin was the greatest threat.
The landmark trial continues Wednesday in Central Islip.