Why Ohio Police Released Photos of a Suspected Heroin Overdose – but Didn't Blur a Child's Face
"We feel fully justified and vindicated in what we did," East Liverpool's Brian Allen, director of public service and safety, tells PEOPLE
The city of East Liverpool, Ohio, stunned many last week when it released two photos showing two adults unconscious from a suspected heroin overdose with a 4-year-old boy sitting behind them.
“We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug,” the city wrote in a post Thursday accompanying the photos. “We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess.”
The sister of the woman in the picture, however, rebuked the images’ release, telling NBC News the city “humiliated my family and humiliated that little boy.”
“I’m not condoning what Rhonda [the woman in the photo] did,” her sister said, “but what they did to her and what they’re doing to her grandson is too much.”
The decision to publicize the pictures took time, local authorities insist to PEOPLE. But “we feel fully justified and vindicated in what we did,” says Brian Allen, the city’s director of public service and safety.
He contends that for every negative reaction to the post – which has been shared more than 28,000 times on Facebook – there are four positive ones.
On Friday, for example, Allen says a man approached him at lunch, shook his hand and said that he’d lost his own son to heroin earlier this year – and that if those photos were available then, the man said, he would have been more involved with his son and prevented his death.
“Shed the light of day on this,” one user wrote about the post, in a comment typical of the positive reaction. “The disease thrives in darkness and dies in the light.”
Allen says the city has posted on Facebook about drug raids and suspected dealers, but not drug overdoses. This time was different: “We felt that image was so powerful that it had to be told the way it was,” he says.
He says he’s seen many overdose scenes, “and none of them carried the message that this one did.”
Allen says the hope was that such a post would kick-start a community discussion about drugs, which might spread to the rest of the state and even the country.
What’s more, he says, East Liverpool would like more financial support from the governor to put more police officers on the ground and build an in-patient treatment center for addicts.
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Photographing an Alleged Crime Scene
Allen says the suspected overdose took place Wednesday, when an East Liverpool officer witnessed the couple’s car allegedly driving erratically behind a school bus carrying children.
The officer pulled the car over and had to turn it off himself, Allen says, to prevent it from rolling forward. There were still schoolchildren gathered around, he says.
Two officers tended to the suspects while a third officer photographed the car, per protocol, as a potential crime scene, Allen says. Once the photographs were taken, the third officer tended to the boy, he says.
At no point did responding officers think the images might later be widely distributed, Allen adds.
Then on Thursday, the driver, James Acord, pleaded guilty to his charges and was sentenced to the maximum jail time, Allen says. Local media had been requesting records from the incident and the city learned it would have to release them all following the guilty plea, Allen says – including the crime scene images.
(Allen says the woman beside Acord in the car, Rhonda Pasek, the boy’s grandmother, pleaded not guilty to her charges and will next appear in court Wednesday. The boy was placed in the custody of county children services, and PEOPLE has not been able to reach Acord or Pasek for comment.)
The city soon decided to post about the incident on its Facebook page, Allen says. He wrote the post.
“We take a very direct approach to dealing with our drug problem,” he says, adding, “When you look at the expression on [the boy’s] face, someone needs to step in and help. And we felt that’s what we were doing.”
Why Didn’t They Blur the Child’s Face?
Allen says that one of the biggest criticisms of the city’s post – why they chose not to blur the child or crop him out of the images – stems from a misunderstanding of the law. He says that, legally, the city could not alter the photos as public records.
“I can’t pick and choose what I want the public to see,” he says.
And while Allen maintains the city “extensively” considered the possible after-effects of the child being in those photos and identified via his relationship with Pasek, he notes that the boy’s name has not been released and that he is not from East Liverpool, which minimizes the chance he’ll face a stigma in daily life.
Allen says much less consideration was given to the reaction from Acord and Pasek, but that “I never wanted to shame anybody. None of us did.”
He says the photos’ release may help accomplish a big-picture goal of building a county treatment center – so when Acord is released from jail, he’ll have somewhere he might go.
“I completely agree you can’t shame an addict into getting help,” Allen says. “But I can shame the government into providing help.”