After 2 years, WOPD still helps addicts via Operation HOPE

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Police Department launched Operation HOPE two years ago, and since then the program has helped 18 people in and around West Orange receive treatment for drug addiction and alcohol abuse. Operation HOPE, an acronym for Heroin-Opiate Prevention Effort, allows anyone to walk into the West Orange Police Department and voluntarily turn in drugs, needles and drug paraphernalia without fear of arrest or charges. Volunteer “angels” walk them through the process of getting into treatment.

“It’s telling people out there how to best treat opioids rather than arresting someone,” West Orange Police Chief James Abbott said in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Dec. 7. “They have as real a police interaction as possible.”

There were 16 opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people in New Jersey in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s most recent statistics. The national rate is 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people. The number of deaths related to heroin abuse in New Jersey rose from 97 in 2010, to 850 in 2016.

Abbott said that when someone with an opioid problem is seeking help, they are more likely to ask for that help when they know they won’t have to serve jail time.

“We just want to avoid them going to jail,” he said. “The average is about seven times in and out of treatment before someone relapses. So prison is not a place for someone with a substance abuse problem.”

According to Abbott, the officers in the department receive training for how to talk to someone who walks into the department and requests help from Operation HOPE. From that point, the individual is screened and a volunteer is called to help them get into treatment. When the program launched at the end of 2016, the department helped two people. The number rose to 11 in 2017, and the department has worked with five people in 2018.

Jessica Maier, who works with West Orange township attorney Richard Trenk, was involved with the establishment of the program back in 2016. After she went through the legal process, she completed the 20 hours of training to become an “angel” volunteer.

“I was involved with the legal side to set it up with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office,” Maier said in a phone interview with the Chronicle on Dec. 10. “The goal is to get treatment. If it’s something bigger than a lower level warrant, we can’t stop that. But part of the program is: You can bring it in with no questions asked — and it also gets drugs off the streets.”

The training to become a volunteer is all done in person and deals with talking to individuals about drug addiction and learning about drug use in New Jersey. Volunteers are taught how to help addicts find treatment.

“It’s been really rewarding,” Maier, who has helped three people in the program, said. “The first call I got was at midnight and I was able to be there in 15 minutes. It was a person who was around the same age as me and it was interesting to talk to them and see how much they’d been through.”

When Maier gets a call for Operation HOPE, she meets the person and then helps them find a treatment center, which can often take up to two weeks.

“We’re the person who helps figure out where they go,” she said. “It’s tough because the average is seven times that people go through that, so you don’t know if it’s going to be temporary or not. But anything you can do helps.”

Operation HOPE is not just for West Orange residents; anyone can seek help through the program. Many program volunteers have family members who have struggled with addiction or have been through addiction treatment themselves.

The police and the volunteers don’t have much contact with individuals after they enter into treatment. Abbott said that health insurance and HIPAA, medical privacy laws, make it tough to track progress.

“There isn’t really a meaningful way to track that,” Abbott said. “We can’t really track how well they do after we do our part. But we see it as a health crisis, not as a criminal crisis.”

Abbott said he is hoping to organize another training class for volunteers early in 2019. To learn more about the program or to participate, call his office at 973-325-4030.

“We’re here to help,” Maier said. “We want more people to come. We know that there’s people out there who need it, and we can help.”