In 2000, Victor Fazio joined the narcotics unit of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office – a defining moment in his career in law enforcement. In that role, he saw, firsthand, how the opioid epidemic took hold – and how one criminally-minded physician could wreak havoc on a community of more than 850,000. As part of this work, Fazio was the architect and task force commander of the Ventura County Interagency Pharmaceutical Crimes Unit, and led the Ventura County Narcotics Task Force, both of which relied on collaboration across departments to reduce crime. It’s a common thread in Fazio’s career.
Now, as the Chief of Police of the city of Moorpark – a position he assumed in March 2019 – Fazio leverages not just his expertise in drug trafficking and pharmaceutical diversion, but also his belief in the power of police and community working together. “Today, in law enforcement, we have to connect to the community so that we all understand each other,” he explains. “It’s a partnership to reduce crime.”
As a newly minted Chief of Police, has your role changed dramatically?
It’s actually been really smooth. It’s an opportunity to have more influence on the organization. We have five contract cities and I [oversee] one of those contracts. I represent the sheriff and the city of Moorpark, and there’s a nice interaction between the city, my staff as well as the public.
Prior to becoming Chief of Police, you had worked in the Ventura County Police Department for more than two decades. Your expertise is in narcotics — and specifically pharmaceutical diversion (lawfully controlled substances diverted into illicit drug trafficking). Was that by accident or design?
I always wanted to be a narc. When I started in narcotics, I was chasing dope like everyone else — cocaine, meth, heroin. The largest prescriber [of opioids] in the country, who had caused a lot of harm, was residing in Oxnard. In 2002, I conducted an investigation into his criminal operation. That set the stage for me. I was able to parlay that into many, many more cases. In 2013, I led an inter-agency task force, with eight agencies working together. We called it the Ventura Model. It’s about getting ahead of the heroin problem, dealing with the sources of supply of heroin and the deaths and harm that occur.
We really started before the rest of the country was seeing problems, because of this one physician and his willingness to prescribe any amount of very addictive drugs, like Oxy and Dilaudid. He had created a culture of opioid drug abusers. We saw a vacuum when we arrested him. A lot of our local users sought out other criminally-operating physicians — on the internet, from Florida. We went to Florida [and other places] 18 times, tracking the sources of supply of drugs coming into California from back east. We were really fortunate [to have the ability to follow the drugs to their source]. There was harm being done in our jurisdiction, and we were able to go to the ends of the earth — we had investigators traveling the world — to stop it.
You’ve steadily pursued advanced degrees. What drove you? Was leadership always in your mind?
No, not really to tell you the truth. I think leadership is important in any position. From the brand-new cadet to the sheriff, you can be a leader at any rank. My pursuit of the degrees was largely personal. I love learning. At the same time, it was practical for me. The master’s in criminal justice gave me the ability to look at why things are happening, not just how to deal with them. I also received a practical application for real world problems like opioids. Take my project for my doctorate, which had a direct effect on the county where I live and work. We made a difference—there are fewer overdose deaths.
Your dissertation was on the very topic: the opioid crisis, working with physicians.
In my doctoral program in organizational change and leadership, we had to decide, day one, what to focus on. There was the Ventura County Prescription Drug Abuse and Heroin Workgroup, out of the Ventura County Department of Behavioral Health — I already had that connection. We decided as a group to look at how to reduce overdose deaths in Ventura County. It all fit together like a glove.
What were some of the outcomes of that work?
We approached the problem of overdose death from four fronts: student education, physician best practice, behavioral health outreach, and intelligence-led policing. Each stakeholder had a specific goal in support of the overall goal of reducing overdose death. From this work we were able to, in some cases, exceed our goals and in others we came very close. We did this both individually and collectively. Through this concerted effort we saw less kids reporting recent drug use, we had more physicians engaged in best practices to monitor their patients, we increased naloxone distribution to the vulnerable population by a significant margin, and we made some very important and targeted arrests of offenders. Most importantly, we reduced death from overdose.
What is the role that teaching has played in your career?
Teaching is continued learning. I always learn more when I teach. It’s about building relationships, having a larger network. As they say, it’s not only what you know but who you know. You want to be able to pick up the phone when you have an issue, and have someone help you—and likewise.
It’s also the ability to provide information, and to professionalize our profession. It’s important to be able to make good, sound policy decisions with a combination of good theory and good practice.
You’re teaching Criminology. What do you hope for students to get out of this class?
I want them to move beyond the understanding of material, to just spit it back out — to move beyond what criminology is about, and to analyze it and apply it to their work settings, so they can improve policy decisions and practice in their own lines of work.
In criminological theory, criminology is understanding why people offend. That’s important. Then we can decide how to deal with them. That’s where criminal justice policy comes in. It gives us the ability to move from the why to the how and the what.
Professor Victor Fazio teaches CJ 500: Criminology.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.