Operation Helping Hand offers rehabilitative assistance to 148 battling substance abuse

For the second time in as many years, law enforcement agencies across Union County have participated in the outreach initiative known as Operation Helping Hand, through which citizens battling substance abuse are offered rehabilitative assistance after being apprehended for minor drug-related offenses, acting Union County Prosecutor Jennifer Davenport announced Thursday.  

Approximately 88 percent of the 148 people contacted via the initiative during a weeklong and countywide outreach session last month agreed to engage in some form of assistance, eclipsing the totals of 81 percent of 102 people achieved last year – an increase of 45 percent in the overall number of contacts.

Local agencies that devoted personnel to assist included the Union County Police Department, Union County Sheriff’s Office, Kean University Police Department, and the police departments in Berkeley Heights, Clark, Cranford, Elizabeth, Fanwood, Garwood, Hillside, Kenilworth, Linden, Mountainside, New Providence, Plainfield, Rahway, Roselle Park, Scotch Plains, and Winfield. The two largest police departments in the County, the Elizabeth Police Department and Plainfield Police Division, both deployed their entire narcotics units to assist, and a total of approximately 105 sworn officers, including ranks ranging from officers to chiefs, took part.

“The commitment exhibited by the many agencies and officers participating in Operation Helping Hand in Union County has been nothing short of remarkable,” Davenport said. “The fight against the opioid abuse epidemic here in New Jersey continues to rage on, but through initiatives such as this, we’re making encouraging progress.” 

Operation Helping Hand was first introduced in Bergen County in 2016, when the current Attorney General, Gurbir S. Grewal, was County Prosecutor there. The initiative involves law enforcement officers arresting users purchasing heroin – or, in some cases, other narcotics – at open-air drug markets.

When the users are brought in for processing on narcotics possession charges, recovery specialists and other healthcare partners are waiting to connect them with treatment and recovery services. Criminal charges are not dropped if the user accepts help, but every effort is made to place him or her on the path to recovery, and judges presiding over the cases are informed of the defendants’ efforts to rehabilitate.

In October 2018, Attorney General Grewal announced the availability of $1 million in grant funding from the state Department of Health (DOH), intended to expand the initiative statewide, citing its success. Last month’s efforts leveraged approximately $60,000 of that sum that had been set aside for Union County.

“Putting an end to the opioid crisis ravaging New Jersey is a top priority we share with DOH, and the $1 million grant we received from them goes a long way toward reaching that goal,” Grewal said at the time the grant was announced. “Counties are eligible to receive vital funding to establish or expand collaborative addiction-fighting programs like Operation Helping Hand, which has a track record of successfully linking drug-addicted individuals arrested on drug charges with the treatment and recovery services they need.”

The grant announcement followed a week last June in which five counties, including Union, participated in the initiative. Statewide, at that time, a total of 177 users were arrested in Bergen, Morris, Passaic, Sussex, and Union counties, with more than five of every six arrested accepting the offer of treatment or recovery support services.

Of the 128 people accepting that same offer in Union County last month, 56 were entered into inpatient detox treatment, 43 entered intensive outpatient or community-based support program, and 29 entered medically assisted treatment. The total number of people contacted included 25 “walk-ins,” or users who heard about the initiative via word of mouth.

“It’s clear that the need is there for a more robust, clear, effective system to direct these individuals to treatment once they are identified. Just placing them into the criminal justice system, time and time again, obviously has its limitations,” Union County Police Department Chief Chris Debbie said. “The real need is diversion, assistance, and addressing the mindset of the addict, hopefully turning them away from the need for opioids once and for all.”

More than 400 people died due to a drug overdose in Union County from 2015 into 2018, the last four full calendar years for which statistics are available. During that same period, police officers across the County distributed the lifesaving overdose-reversal drug naloxone more than 700 times, with more than 90 percent of recipients surviving the encounter.

Roselle-based Prevention Links, a local nonprofit group dedicated to fighting substance abuse countywide, provided addiction recovery coaches and logistical support in directing those contacted by law enforcement last month into treatment.