Opiate Crisis Continues to Challenge, Change Community Policing

Mar 07, 2018

The most pressing issue for local law enforcement across Ocean County is opiate addiction and the crimes associated with it, which many say account for roughly half of the crimes committed in their communities.

“Everyone thinks it’s not happening in small towns,” William Hoffman, Bay Head police chief, said, noting his community sees a lot of opiate crime and activity because it’s on New Jersey Transit’s North Jersey Coast Line, which includes a stop at New York’s Penn Station, Newark Penn Station, Elizabeth and Asbury Park. “It affects everyone. It doesn’t differentiate between race and wealth.”

Shoplifting and thefts are among the most common crimes as a result of opioid addiction because addicts need money to support their habits. From Toms River and Brick to Bay Head and Barnegat, the heroin crisis has forced law enforcement to change how they approach community policing, a panel of Ocean County police chiefs told a nearly standing-room-only crowd at Ocean County College last week.

“All of us are really good at enforcement,” said Lisa Parker, Manchester police chief. “That’s criminal justice 101, but we can’t arrest our way out of this. It’s changed how we think about things.”

The missing component, she said, is prevention. DARE programs have been in local grammar schools for years, but there’s never been a program aimed at high school students or even college-age students, Parker noted. Under her guidance, the Manchester Police Department researched, designed, vetted and implemented an interactive program aimed at opiate awareness for high school students. #NotEvenOnce is a joint effort between law enforcement and educators to discuss the dangers of opiates, and to give students the necessary tools to make better decisions. Manchester police have trained more than 500 officers and educators to bring the program to their communities.

“You grew up wearing a seatbelt. I was already a patrol officer when my chief told me I had to wear a seatbelt,” Parker said, explaining the similarities of opiate abuse prevention for today’s youth. “Addiction happens so quickly. There is a palatable sadness when you talk to a parent who has buried a child.”

Joseph Michigan, Point Pleasant Beach police chief, agreed, saying prevention needs to start when kids are young.

“We’re almost losing them at the high school level,” he said. “Kids think they know it all until you respond to calls and they beg you to save their lives. There are some good outcomes, some bad outcomes. One overdose death is too much.”

Michigan said his department faces challenges like those on Long Beach Island, where for nine months of the year there is a small-town population, but that swells for three months every summer, bringing with it unknown factors, including people and their intentions.

“A lot of things have changed in the drug game,” Chris Cornelius, who heads the Lacey Township police detective bureau, said. “We are a user community. It’s coming from Trenton, Pleasantville. I don’t believe we can give up enforcement.”

Complicating the opiate crisis, he said, is fentanyl, a synthetic drug prescribed to cancer patients because it burrows into muscles and bones, allowing for longer pain relief. Fentanyl can be injected, snorted or sniffed, smoked, taken orally by pill or tablet, and spiked onto blotter paper. Fentanyl patches are abused by removing their gel contents and then injecting or ingesting, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s fact sheet on the drug. Patches have also been frozen, cut into pieces, and placed under the tongue or in the cheek cavity. Illicitly produced fentanyl is sold alone or in combination with heroin and other substances and has been identified in counterfeit pills, mimicking pharmaceutical drugs such as oxycodone, according to the DEA.

Its effect on the body, like that of other commonly used opioids, is relaxation, euphoria, pain relief, sedation, confusion, drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, urinary retention, pupillary constriction and respiratory depression.

Drug-sniffing K-9 officers can’t be used to track the drug because of its potency. They would overdose and die. Even human police officers are at risk of overdosing if they absorb it through their skin.

Programs such as Blue HART (Heroin Addiction Recovery and Treatment), a cooperative initiative to assist individuals with substance abuse, allow law enforcement to take a different approach to the opiate crisis.

“You wouldn’t think we would be doing this when we started,” said Parker, whose police department, along with those of Stafford, Lacey, Brick, Ocean Gate Point Pleasant Borough and Little Egg Harbor, offers a safe haven for anyone who voluntarily seeks help in fighting substance abuse.

Willing participants can either travel to police headquarters or encounter a patrol officer elsewhere. Once screening is complete, police arrange transportation to a designated treatment center. Barnegat police hope to join the program in the next six months, according to Chief Keith Germain.

In addition to the Blue HART program, Stafford Township Police Chief Thomas Dellane is looking to close the loop for his officers by implementing a campaign that pairs cops with clinical social workers to address the root cause of the addiction.

“Historically, cops and social workers do not get along,” he said, noting building the relationship between the two sides will only benefit the addict. “When people are in crisis, who do they call? The police. We are open 24/7, 365 days a year.”

— Gina G. Scala


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