Study: NYC safe injection sites increased quality of life complaints, but not crime
The neighborhoods that had the injection sites experienced a dip in 911 calls related to crime and medical emergencies, but saw a slight increase in complaints around drug activity
By Michael Gartland
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — The first two officially sanctioned safe injection sites to open in the U.S. — both located in New York City — did not lead to an increase in crime in surrounding neighborhoods, and by some measures, arrests and quality of life complaints increased since the sites opened, according to a study put out Monday by JAMA Network Open, an offshoot of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study, the first of its kind and co-authored by former NYPD precinct commander Brandon del Pozo, found that the areas surrounding the city’s two safe injection sites in East Harlem and Washington Heights experienced a dip in 911 calls related to crime and medical emergencies, but saw a slight increase in 311 complaints around drug activity.
Arrests in those neighborhoods for drug and weapons possession also saw a substantial decline when compared to other parts of the city, the report found. That finding appears consistent with Mayor Adams’ support for the programs while also countering an argument that the opening of those sites would lead to a substantial increase in crime.
“Nationwide, there has been a lot of worry about the possibility that overdose prevention centers would attract more crime and disorder, but our study found that if you open them at the site of an existing needle exchange, there is no negative effect, and very little change,” del Pozo said. “The decreases in drug enforcement were dramatic and impossible to miss, but they did not seem to affect crime or quality of life. The overdose prevention centers report a generally positive relationship with local police, and this study suggests the sites can be successfully managed through collaboration with police and harm reduction workers.”
To measure the impact of the safe injection sites, the study relied on criminal complaints, arrest reports and criminal court summonses, as well as the city’s 911 and 311 call records filed after the sites were opened, and compared the data from the areas surrounding the safe injection sites to corresponding data from neighborhoods where pre-existing needle exchanges are located.
The city’s safe injection sites, which former Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced in 2021, provide hard drug users with a sanctuary to shoot up in order to reduce overdoses and OD-related deaths, which have trended upward at an alarming rate in recent years.
The two injection sites in upper Manhattan are operated by OnPoint NYC, an entity focused on harm reduction, which offers clean needles, addiction treatment options and tests to detect fentanyl, a powerful narcotic that’s led to scores of overdose deaths.
From the time the sites opened in Nov. 2021 until Feb. 2023, upwards of 2,300 people have used them approximately 55,000 times and have needed 700 overdose interventions, none of which resulted in fatalities, according to the report.
But their presence has been controversial since their inception.
Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, suggested this summer that a possible shutdown of the sites could be in the offing and that “all options — including enforcement” — were on the table.
In January, East Harlem residents told the Daily News that the injection site there basically functioned as a magnet for drug dealers and addicts that’s led to more open drug use, violence and trash on the streets.
The study doesn’t completely refute that picture, but offers a clearer view of the sites’ overall impact and contradicts some of those initial anecdotal observations.
While it found that monthly quality-of-life complaints to 311 regarding drug activity increased 106% around the injection sites, it also found that increase was negligible given overall low call volumes, which averaged about one or two calls a month.
The study also found there was no statistically significant changes in violence and property crime in the surrounding areas compared to the areas surrounding other needle exchanges in the city.
Arrests for drug offenses in the areas immediately around the safe injection sites plunged by approximately 83%.
Weapons arrests in the immediate areas around the injection sites also dipped significantly since their opening — by 70%. Complaints about homelessness also decreased substantially.
“We did not observe significant increases in reported crime, disorder complaints, or related 311 and 911 calls,” the report’s authors note. “Where estimates were significant, they pointed to modest decreases in crime reports and medical calls.”
In its conclusion, the report found the data it analyzed suggests “that a cooperative relationship between police and [safe injection sites] can enhance their effectiveness as a lifesaving intervention while minimizing behaviors that would erode public support for such initiatives.”