How Rutgers helps officers battle the fatigues of the heroin epidemic

Rutgers University police officer Marlise Correa is going back to class for two days of training in addiction and recovery for officers. On day one, the training teaches how to interact with someone they suspect is addicted.

“I think it’s important because we become empathetic with the person and therefore we get to dig a lot deeper into the situation that is ‘controlling’ the person, instead of just trying to take care of the surface issue, which is the drug addiction,” said Correa.

Correa joined a handful of officers from Ewing, Lyndhurst, Westfield, Cranford and Pennsylvania, intently listening and taking notes of presenters, such as Joseph Coronato. He told them when he became Ocean County Prosecutor nearly five years ago, New Jersey already had laws on the books that served as powerful weapons to battle the emerging opioid epidemic.

“If it were just pure heroin that we were talking about, if it were just pure heroin, I wouldn’t have the death toll that I have here,” Coronato said.

Fast forward to the 40 different kinds of synthetic fentanyl and the overdose deaths have been rising as the drugs shut down the brain’s breathing receptors. Often even naloxone can’t reverse the overdose.

“One little grain of salt, one granular of carfentanyl, will kill an elephant,” said Coronato.

He says he attacks the epidemic through education and prevention, enforcement and breaking the cycle. They all cost money, so how does he pay for each?

“I knew that if I used my forfeiture money, my theory was, ‘Wait a minute, I’m using drug dealers’ money to save people’s lives. Who’s going to complain about it?'” Coronato said.

In his tool box, he creates videos using local drama students to play out pill-popping pathways to addiction, dealing and trouble with the law, becoming the self-described ‘Steven Spielberg’ of prosecutors.

Under enforcement, officers sweep schools.

“We run the dogs through,” Coronato said. “I make sure that I have a judge standing by. I have an assistant prosecutor standing by if we need to get into the locker.”

Coronato says he targets the money that fuels the trade: the shoplifting that leads to bogus returns, stores issuing gift cards and pawn shops paying cash for a fraction of the card’s value.

“In Ocean County last year, this one guy did $2.4 million in gift cards as they were going through. The underbelly and the amount of gift cards that are transacted and how they do it is absolutely phenomenal, but we now can track it with our RAPID system. It’s basically the best thing since sliced bread,” said Coronato.

In cycle breaking, Coronato says 62 percent of those rescued by naloxone accept a recovery coach in treatment. He launched a new program in January that takes the fear out of arrest or prosecution.

“Since Jan. 11 of this year, 250 people have walked into my police departments,” he said. “And I want you to think about it: These are full-blown heroin addicts that walked into a police station. And I say to myself, ‘They didn’t go to a hospital? They didn’t go to a clinic?’ They walked in to a police station and said that they were going to get help.”

What did Correa take away from the presentation?

“I thought it was very informative. It was encouraging to see how he’s moving forward in his county,” she said.

Frank Greenagel of Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies says this is about battling the battle’s fatigue.

“The war on drugs was a failure. Law enforcement is getting burned out, and so we’ve tried to come up with ways to give them better tools to work within the community, but also help other law enforcement officers change their minds about the stigma of addiction and what they can do to help,” Greenagel said.

Coronato says he willingly shares Ocean County’s three-pronged approach to fighting the heroin opiate epidemic because the effort needs more disciples.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight