She had been unconscious more than half an hour before police were called.
By the time officers arrived at her apartment in south Minneapolis’ Lyndale neighborhood, her breathing was shallow after drinking liquid methamphetamine, which sent her into violent convulsions, according to a search warrant filed in the case.
She died at a nearby hospital, one of 31 drug-related fatalities in the first half of the year.
Almost instantly, details of the incident flashed onto Austin Rice’s laptop screen, from which the crime analyst had been tracking the hundreds of overdoses in the city since last year, using the department’s new computer-mapping program for drug activity.
On a recent day at police headquarters, Rice demonstrated how data is shared in real time among area police, fire and emergency services agencies, allowing authorities to spot drug trends before they escalate into major problems.
“That information is crucial to people like our health department partners, community groups that do outreach and education, the people that reach out to vulnerable populations and share the message of safety,” he said, as he beamed a heat map of overdose hot spots on a projection screen of a second-floor conference room.
Like a souped-up version of Google Maps, the Overdose Detection Mapping Application (ODMAP) displays a bird’s-eye view of the city. But instead of showing locations of gas stations and coffee shops, the dots on the map signify drug overdoses and other drug-related emergency calls.
It’s been a hectic few months for the city, which is experiencing an average of 28 reported overdoses each week. Earlier this month, authorities saw an all-time high of 50 overdoses in seven days.
“When you see those spikes, it’s likely indicative of something like a bad batch hitting the streets, taking people off guard who are used to using a [particular] product or narcotics,” Rice said, adding that tracing the source of the drugs takes time.
He said the technology lets officials from Minneapolis to Washington County keep constant tabs on the local drug market. And while he understands the public’s skepticism around predictive modeling, he said information gleaned from the software isn’t necessarily always used for law enforcement purposes. If a particular area is generating high volumes of overdose calls, depending on the circumstances, authorities might forward that information to addiction counselors to follow up with the people living there, he said.
“That’s probably someone who’s living there, who’s experiencing a tough time with their addiction,” Rice said. “We have access to information that can inform the people, who have the ability to help the person struggling.”
While health officials are sounding the alarm about a statewide resurgence of meth, authorities suspect the recent overdoses in Minneapolis are linked to opioids, particularly fentanyl and its more potent cousin, carfentanil.
Until recently, Minneapolis was largely spared from the opioid epidemic sweeping through the Rust Belt and Appalachia. But heroin and prescription-drug overdoses have soared in parts of the city in the past few years.
As of June 10, that number stood at 664, putting the city on pace to blast past last year’s total of 954. If current department projections hold up, the city will log 1,385 overdoses by the end of the year — a tenfold increase from a decade ago.
Officials said they’re seeing more and more users migrate to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller often manufactured overseas and sold over the internet that is responsible for a sharp increase in overdose deaths nationwide, particularly among blacks and older people.
Earlier this year, a regional task force released its recommendations on how to address the scourge of opioid addiction in the Twin Cities with a focus on reducing abuse of substances, such as heroin, among incarcerated people and the local American Indian community.
The mapping technology’s creators tout it as an important tool in the fight to stem the opioid epidemic.
“Departments can identify hotspots and assign undercover cops or other responses based on map data. The map has a built-in spike alert notification system and data analytics, to help law enforcement identify trends over designated time periods,” its website says. “Departments can overlap overdose data with drug seizure, vacant housing, or other data maps in an attempt to understand drivers or correlates of overdose.”
One such overdose hot spot is Peavey Field Park, which police consider an open-air drug market at the corner of E. Franklin and Chicago avenues on the city’s south side.
Ronald Cruz said it’s hard to miss the steady stream of drug dealers, sex workers and their customers who do business day and night in the park and nearby alleyways.
“I’ve seen hand-to-hand transactions, people sitting at the bus stop smoking their crack pipes,” said Cruz, who works at a church-run shoe store across the street.
Sometimes, he said, a police cruiser will linger at the northeast corner of the park, causing the crowd to quickly disperse, but never for long.
Using geographic information system technology, or G.I.S., to map and try to predict crimes, such as shootings and robberies, is nothing new, according to Rice’s boss, Sgt. Jeff Egge. Now, he says, the department is bringing a similar data-driven approach to analyzing drug trends — under the theory that crime occurs when a motived offender and a victim come together at a particular place and time.
“For the last 1,116 weeks, we’ve been doing CompStat here in Minneapolis,” said Egge, referring to the statistic-heavy tactic championed by New York City police in the 1990s. “The opioid overdoses don’t follow that precisely, but to analyze it in the beginning, we wanted to use the models that we’ve used before.”
In recent years authorities began aggressively investigating fatal drug overdoses, with larger police departments such as Minneapolis assigning detectives to interview witnesses and gather evidence as they would any other unnatural death, helping prosecutors build cases against drug dealers.
Police last year started carrying naloxone, the fast-acting antidote for opioid overdoses.
With the new software locations where officers administered naloxone or “known sources of redirected opioids, including pharmacies and doctors”are just a few keystrokes away, Egge said. This includes incidents from neighboring jurisdictions.
Rice, 25, was hired last fall to do just that, beating out about 120 other applicants.
“It’s a way for us to collaborate with each other, and be able to get safety messages out,” Rice said. “I think it brings to light the importance of this, that this is not an issue that’s going away.”
Tom Combs, who has studied addiction and opioids, said the crisis has put a strain on police manpower. So it makes sense, he said, that area police departments would share information.
“I could see utility certainly just from the preparedness aspect,” said Combs, who, after retiring as a longtime emergency room doctor at North Memorial Health Hospital, began a second career writing medical-thriller novels. “Right now overdoses in many cities are tying up a dominant portion of the EMS system, and the police and fire, depending on the system.”
Staff writer Miguel Otárola contributed to this report.