Council gives green light to Operation HOPE

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing a new program at its June 14 meeting to allow heroin and opioid addicts to request help from the West Orange Police Department without fear of arrest.

Operation HOPE — Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort — gives an addict who voluntarily asks for help the opportunity to be placed into treatment after turning over any drugs and related paraphernalia and passing a check for outstanding warrants. An addict will then be assigned a volunteer “angel” for support during the hours they await transport to a rehab facility provided by Integrity House. This addiction-treatment organization will either place the addict in one of its own 500 beds throughout New Jersey or find facilities suited to address their particular needs.

If the initiative sounds unique, it is. Township officials say that West Orange is the first community in the state to offer such a program, but not the first campaign of its kind. Rather, Operation HOPE was modeled after the ANGEL Initiative in Gloucester, Mass., which has already inspired more than 100 similar programs in 24 states since launching in 2015. These programs — which include outreach efforts different from West Orange’s Operation HOPE in East Brunswick and Newton — have placed approximately 1,000 addicts into drug rehabilitation.

And WOPD Chief James Abbott hopes Operation HOPE will see the same success when it launches in October. Abbott, who first proposed the program after the mother of an oft-arrested heroin addict told him about the Massachusetts initiative, told the West Orange Chronicle that arresting people for what is really a health issue is an “exercise in futility.” Specifically, he said it merely clogs the criminal justice system without giving drug users the chance to break the cycle of addiction.

The goal of Operation HOPE is to change that.

“We’ve been fighting the same war on drugs for the past six decades,” Abbott said in a June 16 phone interview. “Maybe it’s about time we tried something different, because it obviously doesn’t work. We’re not expecting that everybody’s going to come in and give us their heroin and say they need help,” he continued. “But even if one person is helped by this, it’s well worth it.”

Integrity House officials believe Operation HOPE will save many more than that, and said they are excited to partner with the WOPD for the program. Admissions Director Marc Ackerman lauded West Orange as a “forward-thinking community” for its willingness to recognize that addicts cannot be helped through punishment. He said addiction is a disease needing treatment, and having a police force willing to support that concept by getting people into rehab represents a “huge step forward” in his organization’s mission of fighting addiction.

“If an individual were to not take care of their diabetes and their blood sugar spikes and they go into the hospital, you wouldn’t arrest them for not taking care of their diabetes,” Ackerman told the Chronicle in a June 17 phone interview, adding that addressing addiction as an illness allows the treatment community to work with police to help addicts instead of getting involved after they are already in the system.

“The reality is that you can’t arrest your way out of this issue,” he said.

Heroin and opioid addiction is a major issue throughout the United States, something Ackerman attributes to the rise of prescription drug use. The addiction specialist said powerful painkillers such as Percocet are highly addictive, leading users to turn to heroin when they are either cut off or seek a lower-cost substitute. Heroin is sold for as little as $5 on the street, yet produces the same high as pain pills.

The increased use of heroin and opioids is seen in both state and national statistics. According to the council resolution, it is estimated that more than 128,000 people in New Jersey use heroin, and more than 5,000 New Jerseyans have suffered heroin-related deaths since 2004 — triple the national average. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that, nationally, 28,647 deaths in 2014 involved heroin and opioids, with the overdose rate tripling between 2000 and 2014.

West Orange has also been touched by this nationwide epidemic. According to WOPD data, the township has seen seven heroin and opioid-related overdoses in 2015 and 2016 so far. Police have also made 54 arrests and seized 467 bags of heroin and 62 opioid pills. An additional three lives were saved using Narcan, an opioid-antidote nasal spray.

Integrity House hopes to combat these statistics by accepting anyone seeking help — including residents from other towns and those addicted to drugs other than heroin and opioids — into treatment through Operation HOPE. Ackerman said his organization will even take in uninsured addicts and find alternative means of funding, including grants and initiatives to make sure everyone gets the help they need. West Orange taxpayers will not be funding any aspect of the program, he stressed.

And while programs similar to Operation HOPE have often had to send addicts out of state for treatment due to a lack of available local beds, Ackerman said Integrity House’s relationships with treatment communities in all 21 counties means finding beds will not present a problem.

“Right now, the demand for substance treatment far exceeds the supply, there are more people who need beds than there are beds,” Ackerman said. “But what we’ve been able to do through working collaboratively with our community partners at Integrity House is build an infrastructure where we’re very successful in finding individuals treatment for substance abuse. They can get the treatment that they need, get healthy, go back to their families, go back to their jobs, and reclaim their lives. That’s the goal.”

That dedication and the organization’s lengthy track record of success is why the township chose to partner with Integrity House for Operation HOPE, according to Richard Trenk, the township attorney. In addition, Trenk said acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray has given her approval for the program, a significant step considering that some have questioned whether similar initiatives in other states allow police to overstep their legal authority by choosing not to arrest people for possession.

In fact, the township is so confident about the potential benefits of Operation HOPE that Trenk said it is already working to get the concept made into a state law. He said Abbott has spoken about the program before the state Legislature, and that state Assemblyman John McKeon is working closely with West Orange to get a measure passed by the state Assembly and Senate in the near future. McKeon represents the 27th District, which includes West Orange.

Trenk said the township’s goal is to see Operation HOPE become a standard so that as many addicts as possible receive the treatment they need.

“We hope it becomes a statewide and national type of focus so that we can stop arresting people who are afflicted with a health issue,” Trenk told the Chronicle in a June 17 phone interview. “On every level, it’s about helping people get better. That’s our goal, our motto and commitment. And now we need volunteers to step forward and help us in this effort.”

Volunteer angels will be a key component in the success of Operation HOPE, Trenk said, with the township hoping to attract at least 75 volunteers before the July 31 sign-up deadline. The township encourages anyone interested to fill out the online application available on the township website and email it to [email protected] All volunteers will be subject to a background check.

Once approved by the WOPD, applicants will receive 20 hours of training from Integrity House to learn how to engage with addicts and better understand addiction. They will then be required to take at least one 12-hour shift per month, during which they will be expected to report to the police station within 30 minutes of a call to provide emotional support and encouragement to an addict who has agreed to enter treatment. Volunteers will not be expected to maintain relationships with addicts after they are taken in by Integrity House as it is not a mentorship program.

That may sound like a major commitment to busy residents, but angel coordinator Patti Duffy pointed out that the number of times a volunteer will be called upon varies. That is something she knows firsthand as head of the town’s Domestic Violence Response Team, a program that similarly enlists volunteers to support victims of domestic abuse. Duffy said members of the DVRT team sometimes go through shifts without getting any calls, while other times they might get a few. And just like with DVRT, she said any angel who cannot make a shift will be free to switch with someone else.

Convenience aside, Duffy said she hopes residents will consider becoming an angel for the good it will do for addicts in need. Not only will volunteers have the opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life when they are at their most fragile, she said they will feel good themselves knowing they have helped someone else.

Duffy told the Chronicle she has already received six applications from potential angels so far, and it is likely she will receive many more. That is because Trenk reached out to the West Orange clergy for support and received a positive response. In fact, several clergymen spoke during the council meeting, praising Operation HOPE and announcing their intentions to promote it within their communities.

One such clergyman was Pastor Terry Smith of The Life Christian Church. Speaking with the Chronicle in a June 20 phone interview, Smith said it is important to him as a pastor to help all people in need. He said his church has benefited more than 2,000 addicts through the years by offering a 12-step program, connecting them with more intensive rehab facilities and providing counseling to their families.

But to have the government and law enforcement working with a treatment provider is a truly “brilliant” idea, Smith said. And he knows that the members of his congregation — hundreds of whom already volunteer for charitable causes, he said — will feel the same way.

“Our congregation will be jumping up and down at the opportunity to serve people and the community in this way,” Smith said.

They will not be the only West Orange officials willing to support Operation HOPE. Health Director Theresa De Nova and fire Chief Peter Smeraldo both expressed their willingness at the council meeting to further the program in any way possible. All five council members also praised the WOPD and Integrity House for putting forward the plan.

Afterward, council President Victor Cirilo told the Chronicle he had voted in favor of the program because it offers a unique solution to an addiction problem that has reached epidemic proportions. Cirilo pointed out that addiction knows no boundaries, affecting people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Even those with good jobs and stable families, who society would consider “successes,” are susceptible to the perils of addiction, he said.

Operation HOPE sends the message that everyone is worthy of receiving help, Cirilo said, which is essential to combating the rise in heroin and opioid addiction.

“This is a very progressive way of addressing this concern,” Cirilo said in a June 16 phone interview. “We’re creating an opportunity for folks who have become addicted to move themselves on.”

Photos by Sean Quinn