Law Enforcement, Addiction Services Forge New Alliance to Help Drug Offenders

State Attorney General promotes program that treats addiction as a public health crisis rather than ‘law enforcement issue alone’

Matt Albanese works as a recovery specialist with New Bridge.
A novel partnership involving dozens of law enforcement agencies and addiction providers in northern New Jersey has been extremely effective at connecting low-level drug offenders with recovery services, according to public officials who hope the pilot program will serve as a model elsewhere in the state and nation.

Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal joined prosecutors and police from five northern counties, healthcare providers, and elected leaders yesterday to announce that 84 percent of people arrested for purchasing or possessing drugs during the five-day initiative agreed to participate in clinical detox treatment programs or other services to address their substance use disorders. While these individuals still face charges, law enforcement officials connect them with recovery specialists and pre-arranged care — and may even provide transportation and other support, in addition to processing their arrest.

The partnership, Operation Helping Hand, builds on a Bergen County program that Grewal launched in 2016 as county prosecutor, and marks the first time so many law enforcement jurisdictions have formed an alliance with recovery professionals. While the formal operation ran from June 11 to June 15 only, participants said the connections they made will enable them to continue to offer options to addicts they arrest in the future.

“We made a decision that we were going to no longer sweep up low-level drug offenders, and put their picture in the paper and shame them. We were no longer going to add to the stigma that is already associated with this disease of addiction,” Grewal said during a press conference at New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus, which hosts the largest detox and treatment program in the state and played a critical role in Operation Helping Hand. “And guess what? That approach worked.”

Drug-related deaths continue to rise in NJ

“It was a matter of getting outside of our comfort zones, instead of treating these people as defendants, treating them as human beings,” Grewal said. A total of 177 people were arrested during the pilot program and 151 agreed to participate in treatment services, including three who came in voluntarily when they heard about the program. “It can work everywhere if everyone is committed to the collaboration you see here today,” he added. “There’s no limit to the possibilities.”

Over the next few months, the attorney general said he plans to roll out a Helping Hand “playbook” that by other county prosecutors in New Jersey, or police officials elsewhere in America, can use to stop “treating addiction as a law enforcement issue alone, but rather treating it for what it is, a public health crisis.” While he concedes some of the addicts will relapse, Grewal said the model is a promising example of what is possible.

More than 2,200 Garden State residents died of drug-related causes in 2016, an average of six fatalities daily; and preliminary numbers for 2017 and 2018 show that deaths continue to rise, according to information the attorney general has compiled. Already this year, some 1,450 have lost their lives to addiction and tens of thousands have sought treatment services.

Former Gov. Chris Christie helped raise public awareness about addiction and devoted significant resources to treatment and recovery services. Gov. Phil Murphy has also prioritized the epidemic but has outlined a more targeted, science-based approach that involves expanding data collection, population health programs, and support for community-based behavioral health providers. (NJ Spotlight is hosting a three-part roundtable series on opioid addiction, starting with a discussion on prevention and risk reduction last week and followed by panels on treatment in September and recovery in October.)

Crack down on overprescribing

Grewal is eager for the state’s top law enforcement office to contribute in new and expanded ways, including cracking down on overprescribing, regulating hospital protocols for opioid use, and enhancing collaboration with recovery programs. In February, shortly after he took office, he announced that a new office in his department had been created to track the epidemic, analyze and post related data, and help local officials coordinate multi-disciplinary opioid-focused emergency response teams.

The attorney general also wanted to build on the success he had with the Helping Hand program he initiated in Bergen County. Five counties agreed to participate in the pilot program, which was split into two sectors; Bergen, Morris, Passaic and Sussex worked together to focus on arrests in Paterson, and Union County zeroed in on heroin buys in Newark, Elizabeth, Plainfield and Linden. All together, 65 local police and sheriffs’ departments participated in the operation and, at times, some even coordinated with other jurisdictions to ensure the necessary public officials were informed.

Before the program launched, law enforcement worked with local recovery experts to line up detox beds, treatment space and other support services, and coordinated with a peer recovery specialist, a trained professional who has experienced addiction and recovery personally. The five-county pilot involved 29 community partners (including New Bridge), a mix of acute care hospitals, residential treatment facilities, outpatient programs and housing services; some providers offered “scholarships” to cover the cost of individuals’ care and others enrolled them in Medicaid, if possible. The Morris County Sheriff’s Office also deployed its “Hope One” mobile recovery services van.

Deborah Visconi, president and CEO of New Bridge, said the medical center has traditionally been a resource for law enforcement in Bergen County and beyond. Working together on the Helping Hand pilot helped “unify” these collaborators, she said, and has “demonstrated that creative solutions are available, and they work.”

Surprised that police offered to help

Prosecutors praised the unusual, and effective nature of the partnerships, which they called “a promising example of how to save lives” and help stabilize the families and communities devastated by addiction. Passaic County prosecutor Camelia M. Valdes said many people they arrested were surprised to find police officers offering them help and a sense of hope, not just handcuffs, and that many took that opportunity to try and change their life.

“Traditionally drug interdiction alone is insufficient,” Morris County prosecutor Fredric M. Knapp, said, adding that education programs and drug court — in which certain nonviolent criminals can be diverted for treatment instead of incarceration — are helpful, but not enough. Helping Hand offers another alternative, he said, noting, “law enforcement is at its best when partnering with the community.”

Prosecutors in the program had discretion in whom they allowed to participate; Grewal said most of the individuals involved were arrested for purchasing heroin or other drugs in open-air markets, or for possessing small quantities for personal use. Once police issued them a summons, they were offered a chance to talk to a peer specialist, who performed a basic addiction screening by telephone. If the suspect chose to pursue additional services, they were transported to an appropriate detox or treatment facility.

But the work quickly became highly personal, participants recalled. Some police remained with individuals throughout the intake process, hours after their shift ended; one drove a patient home from treatment so he could care for his dog, pay his rent and avoid eviction. “A lot of work goes into this. It’s not just the original connection. There’s a lot of follow up,” explained Constance Rizzo, a recovery specialist and former drug user who was facing a 12-year prison sentence in 2006 before she entered treatment.

Matthew Albanese used heroin for seven years before Bergen County’s Helping Hand program enabled him to get clean. “It took me a long time to surrender” to recovery, he said, “but I got my life back.” An artist who now works as a recovery specialist at New Bridge, Albanese conceded he didn’t realize how his contact with police could turn things around, although that has since changed. “A year ago I came (to New Bridge) in handcuffs, and now I work here,” he said with a smile, sparking applause.