San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore admitted on August 10 2021 that no medical professionals were involved in the making of a heavily-criticized video his department has claimed showed a deputy “overdosing” on fentanyl.
According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, Gore said that he — not a doctor — was the one who determined that Deputy David Faiive overdosed on the drug after coming in contact with it, as seen in a video released five days earlier.
The pre-produced video shows Faiive falling to his side and being given a dose of naloxone by his training officer, Cpl. Scott Crane. At one point, Gore claims that exposure to “just a few small grains of fentanyl” can be deadly.
“Everybody that saw the video saw him seize up, go down, fall on his head,” Gore told the Union-Tribune. “The drugs tested for fentanyl. It was classic signs of fentanyl overdose — that’s why we called it that.”
The department did release a report stating that a mix of fentanyl and fluorofentanyl was present in two bags recovered at the site of the purported stop. But while the drug is reportedly fifty times more potent than heroin, its mere presence does not ensure anyone nearby is likely to suffer an overdose.
“We have good scientific data on how it behaves and on how it doesn’t behave, and it doesn’t easily cross the skin barrier or aerosolize,” medical toxicologist Ryan Marino told us following the release of the video.
“So much so that it took decades of research from the top pharmaceutical chemists to develop a skin formulation of fentanyl mixed into an absorbable liquid, which still takes more than twelve hours to absorb enough to deliver a therapeutic dose (not an overdose). What they are proposing is literally impossible due to the laws of chemistry. It has never happened in fifty years and it would be very easy to detect fentanyl in one of these LEO’s systems that they notably never do.”
Marino, the medical director of toxicology at University Hospitals in Cleveland, was among the many medical professionals who quickly criticized the video as it was circulated, apparently without questions nor further scrutiny, by news outlets both in San Diego and around the United States.
“These reports advance the narrative that people who use drugs are contaminated or contagious and not only impair the responses that they get when they experience an overdose (either avoiding resuscitating then due to concern for ‘exposure’ or delaying with unnecessary and wasteful PPE) and just generally perpetuating the stigma that this group of people is subjected to,” he told us. “And, equally disturbingly, these claims are used to increase criminalization of people who use drugs.”
The Union-Tribune, for example, ran its original story without quoting medical professionals or citing past reporting and statements which presented a direct challenge to the narrative pushed by Gore’s department. The newspaper later added a note saying:
This story has been updated to note there is disagreement about how much exposure to fentanyl is necessary to cause serious health impacts and links have been added for more information.
By that point, the “overdose” story had already spread through not only local television news stations but major outlets like CNN and ABC News. CNN did not respond to a request for comment, but an ABC spokesperson referred us to a follow-up story addressing criticism of the video from medical experts and acknowledging that the network had helped spread the initial video.
The San Diego Union-Tribune later reprinted a follow-up story from its sister publication, the Los Angeles Times, about the mounting rebukes to the sheriff’s department’s claims. Its latest story with statements from Gore was attributed to the two reporters behind the original piece spreading his department’s claims.
The newspaper’s public safety editor, Dana Littlefield, told us:
Yes, the story that posted Thursday, Aug. 5 is live on the site. It was updated Friday afternoon and a correction was added today that will also run in the newspaper. It would not be in line with our policies to take down the online story. It is part of our record of reporting.
Reporters from my team wrote the original story and will continue reporting on these issues. I will continue to edit their work and bring in help from other reporters and editors as needed.
Gore reportedly said he was “shocked” by the response, and that his department had “operated under the assumption” that inhaling or touching fentanyl could induce an overdose. The department has yet to respond to a request we made for comment highlighting past reporting to the contrary.
“If we were misinformed so be it we are trying to correct [it],” he told the Union-Tribune.
Gore also claimed that Faiive — described as being currently out of the U.S. — had agreed to release his records while saying that he “might” not have received a toxicology test. Reached for comment, the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office told us:
The Medical Examiner investigates fatal overdoses but not ones where the person survives. I would suggest you reach out to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for more information.
The county Health and Human Services Agency also referred requests for comment on the video to Gore’s agency.
Marino has organized an online petition calling on news organizations to correct their reporting on the video. According to Associated Press, more than 300 experts have signed the document, calling the story “dangerous misinformation that can cause harm to both people who use opioids and to members of the law enforcement community.”
In late October 2021, local news outlet Voice of San Diego reported that Gore’s second-in-command, Undersheriff Kelly Martinez, apologized for the video but did not disavow it.
“We’ve been taught for years from a number of different sources that that was absolutely what could happen with the fentanyl exposure,” Martinez said at a forum hosted by the news outlet.
Since the video’s release, similar stories out of Anaheim and Clovis have been released, each claiming, without proof, that law enforcement officials have suffered ill effects from being around fentanyl. She also said that Faiive “should have done some things differently when he was working with the drug.”
Gore retired from the department on February 3 2022 — the same day state auditors published a report criticizing his department’s response to 185 prisoner deaths in county jails between 2006 and 2020.
“Given the ongoing risk to the safety of incarcerated individuals, the Sheriff’s Department’s inadequate response to deaths and the lack of effective independent oversight, we believe the Legislature must take action to ensure that the Sheriff’s Department implements meaningful change,” the report stated. “Until the Sheriff’s Department makes such changes, the weaknesses in its policies and practices will continue to jeopardize the health and lives of the individuals in its custody.”
Despite the number of prisoners who died in his department’s custody, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria appointed Gore to the local Ethics Commission. The San Diego City Council has yet to approve Gloria’s decision.
Update 8/10/21 3:26 p.m. PST: Updated with comment from San Diego Union-Tribune public safety editor Dana Littlefield.
Update 10/25/2021 9:43 a.m. PST: Updated with note on public comments from San Diego County Undersheriff Kelly Martinez.
Update 10/2/2023 9:25 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect Gore’s retirement from the Sheriff’s Department and appointment to the San Diego Ethics Commission. — ag