06/17/2013 12:52 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2015

Got Needles? Why the Greatest Danger to Law Enforcement Isn't Guns

When most people imagine the dangers that law enforcement officers face, they picture high-drama action scenes from Law & Order or CSI -- drug busts where bullets spray from behind a locked door; heart-thumping alley chases where any number of hooded suspects lurk in the shadows; a routine traffic stop where, instead of a license, the officer encounters the cold muzzle of a gun. But while only one in 50,000 officers in the United States is killed by a firearm during the course of duty, one in three, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, will suffer wounds from a less glitzy, but far more common foe: syringes.

Needle-stick injury, or being punctured by used syringes that could be contaminated with dangerous viruses such as HIV or hepatitis C, is a common occupational hazard for law enforcement. The injuries typically occur as the officer searches a suspect's pockets or belongings. Although officers are encouraged to ask a suspect prior to search if he or she possesses needles or sharp objects, in most states fear of paraphernalia charges leads many suspects to lie or attempt to hide the objects, thereby increasing the risk of a needle-stick to the officer.

Officer Jen "Crash" Earls, now retired from the Chicago Police Department, had just pulled over a posh Lexus after the driver had sped through a red light.

"My license is in my purse," the woman told her. Without thinking, Officer Earls reached into the purse -- and stuck her hand on seven dirty heroin needles.

"Getting stuck by a needle was one of the scariest moments of my career," says Officer Earls. "I didn't know the syringes were there, and I didn't know if [the woman] had HIV or viral hepatitis."

Officer Earls didn't tell anyone she'd been stuck, as she didn't want to admit to a "rookie mistake" or draw negative attention to herself. She was lucky not to catch a virus. Other less fortunate officers who are exposed to disease (60-80 percent of injection drug users have hepatitis C and 9 percent of new HIV cases come from syringe sharing) have to endure post-exposure prophylaxis treatment, a chemo-like regimen of harsh chemicals that put the officer out of work for months and are costly to departments. The treatment is designed to prevent viral transmission after an exposure.

Some cities and states have taken steps to protect law enforcement from accidental needle-sticks by decriminalizing syringes, or removing them from the list of paraphernalia. Suspects are more likely to be honest with officers about syringe possession if they don't fear legal repercussions. According to a CDC study, needle-stick injuries to law enforcement plummet by an impressive 66 percent when syringes are decriminalized.

Today North Carolina becomes the newest state to enact a partial syringe decriminalization law, HB850 Possession of Needles/Tell Law Officer. The law is the first of its kind in the nation to specifically address the issue of law enforcement safety through amending the paraphernalia statutes. Under the new law, if an officer asks a person prior to search if he or she is carrying syringes or other sharp objects, and the person discloses their location, he or she is not subject to prosecution for possession of those objects.

"This bill is about opening up honest dialogue between law enforcement officers and the people they come in contact with," says Detective Ronald Martin, retired from over 20 years service to the New York City Police Department and an advocate for HB850. "When people are afraid of us and hiding things from us, it puts everyone at greater risk."

HB850's principle advocate was the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC), a public health organization that has trained over 1000 law enforcement officers in North and South Carolina on how to avoid needle-stick injuries and reduce disease transmission.

"This law is important to protect law enforcement officers from contact with deadly viruses such as HIV or hepatitis C," says Robert Childs, Executive Director of NCHRC. "People don't often think about the dangers of contracting diseases during a search, but we need to recognize that this is a critical issue for law enforcement. These brave men and women protect our communities and we should return that favor by protecting them from disease."

Learn more about needle-stick injuries to law enforcement or how syringe decriminalization can help increase officer safety.