GLOUCESTER TOWNSHIP, NJ—On Tuesday afternoon, local, county and state law enforcement officials laid out the challenges of the opioid crisis and the solutions they came up with to try and solve them at Camden County’s second 21 Counties, 21st Century Community Policing Project event.
The 21 Counties, 21st Century Community Policing Project was started this spring by the New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal “to strengthen relationships between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve – and to address areas of concern before conflicts arise,” according to attorney general’s website.
According to the prosecutor’s office, there have been 181 narcotic-related deaths in Camden County this year; and police have administered naloxone, a drug used to treat opiate overdoses, 480 times. In 2017, the total narcotic-related deaths across the county was 277.
“Nobody was prepared in law enforcement for the opioid epidemic,” Bill Townsend, Camden County Chief of Detectives said. “We’ve had to become part police, part EMS, part social worker — we’ve had to completely change our mindset.”
To the Camden County Police Department [CCPD], that means staying in constant communication with its neighboring departments and partnering with community organizations and programs to try and get help for those struggling with addiction.
“We have to, its the only way we can attack this,” CCPD Deputy Chief RIchard Verticelli said. “The days of just making arrests and putting people in jail, what did that do?”
Verticelli said that in Camden, a large number of individuals who experience drug overdosed in Camden come from its surrounding suburbs. If CCPD officers respond to an overdose, identifying symbols on a potentially lethal batch of heroin, along with where it was located, will be shared with neighboring police departments.
The CCPD also works closely with the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office Suburban Narcotics Task Force.
“We are in constant communication with each other,” Lt. Bob Ferris of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office said. “We meet every morning.”
Ferris said that many of the prosecutor’s office narcotic cases either start out in the county suburbs and work their way back to the city, or vice versa.
“Everybody looks at Camden City as this drug place where all the drugs are sold, but its the whole county,” said Ferris. “It doesn’t matter where you live, we’ve seen both. Cartel cases out in the suburbs, cartel cases in the city. Major drug dealers out in the suburbs, major drug dealers in the city … it truly is equal.”
Another way policing has changed during the opioid crisis, officials said, is providing paths for help.
The CCPD will try and get an overdose victim suffering from addiction help, said Verticelli, who is also on the county’s Addiction Awareness Task Force. The Addiction Awareness Task Force is one organizations that law enforcement works with to promote awareness and available resources for help and support with addiction.
A Gloucester Township Police Department [GTPD] program that places a state certified drug and alcohol counselor in the municipal court room could soon go statewide.
Project SAVE [Substance Abuse Victimization Effort] provides those facing drug charges paths to get help prior to their court dates. The SAVE Advocate not only assists defendants suffering from addiction, but also their family members, the municipal prosecutor and the judge with information about treatment programs.
Since it was implemented in 2011, the program has had 45 of 274 defendants complete treatment through the program, according to the GTPD.
Police departments have also had to adapt to the changing potency of the opioids, particularly with fentanyl now on the scene. Fentanyl is a lethal synthetic opioid used by drug distributors to cut heroin, and even a small amount absorbed through the skin could be lethal.
Ferris said that now most narcotics officers carry kits that include naloxone, masks, respirators, gloves, bodysuits and a TruNarc narcotics analyzer, which comes with a hefty price tag of $25,000 but allows officers to determine the substance without unwrapping it.
If responding or raiding a scene where its known large quantities of fentanyl are located, it also requires more law enforcement agencies, said Ferris, like the county hazmat team, paramedics and the fire department.
“I think people for the first time saw the seriousness of fentanyl, and they don’t understand how its coming in to the country and how its cut, how dangerous it is. How little it takes to kill someone,” Mary Eva Colalillo, Camden County Prosecutor said.
Colalillo said the prosecutor’s office will host each of the four 21 Counties, 21st Century Community Policing events in Camden County.
“One of the best things to come out of it was a woman came up to me, and said ‘I am with a program who feeds the homeless and we see a lot of people addicted, how can we help them? What can we do?’ I put her in touch with the task force,” Colalillo said, hoping that connection will save at least one life.