WEST ORANGE, NJ — Since November 2016, the West Orange Police Department (WOPD) has offered assistance to those struggling with drug addiction through Operation HOPE, or the Heroin Opiate Prevention Effort, a program intended to help them into drug treatment facilities. Working in collaboration with community volunteers known as “Angels,” the program encourages those who suffer from addiction to seek treatment voluntarily without the consequence of serving jail time by offering drug turn-in among other services.

This initiative, currently in its third year, was started after West Orange Chief James Abbott found that he did not have enough resources to help the son of a family friend who had been battling drug addiction.

“At that point, he realized we should have something for people who need help, especially as we’re here to protect and serve,” said Lt. Richard McDonald Jr. “So, it just behooves us to get more involved from the prevention and the education [standpoint] rather than just enforcement.”

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According to McDonald, this program is the first of its kind in the State of New Jersey, as it operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Although there are a few similar programs, McDonald explained that they are often closed during the times when these individuals need the most help.

He added that once someone “voluntarily makes that choice” to get help, the West Orange program is geared toward providing options based on his or her specific need.

“We’re not going to pick someone off the street and force them to get help,” he said. “So if they voluntarily want help, they come in, we call one of our volunteers—which we call our Angels—and those Angels will come in, they’ll speak with them, they’ll go over their options with them at that point to figure out whether they need a certain type of rehab or detox depending on their history of abuse and what substances [they’ve used], and then they start making phone calls right then and there.”

He continued that once a participant is part of the program, “finding a facility for them may take some phone calls,” but that’s the easy part. The hard part, he said, is “getting someone with an addiction issue to admit they need help and through the front doors [of police headquarters].”

To become an Angel, volunteers participate in a 30-hour training program, which was created in collaboration with the Newark-based rehabilitation facility Integrity House. During that training session—which has previously taken place over the course of several weekends and some weeknights—trainees learn everything about drug identification, how to conduct counseling sessions and what to expect from law enforcement. They are also trained on the proper use of Narcan, a drug that can help reverse an opioid overdose.

According to McDonald, all 96 officers from the WOPD have been trained “in the tenants of the program” in order to identify those who need help by providing flyers and support for volunteer Angels.

“Since the beginning of the program, we’ve placed over 40 residents into some kind of rehab facility, which I think is awesome,” said McDonald, adding that many people have heard about the program from current volunteers, their family, their neighbors and their friends.

There are currently 35 Angels from various professional and personal backgrounds ranging in age from 18 to 70 years old. According to McDonald, many of the current Angels come from surrounding communities such as Clark and Carlstadt.

"We have people from all over the area,” he said. “We have a couple people that work in West Orange, but live in different towns. The only mandate is that they have to be within 30 minutes of [West Orange Police Headquarters].”

He explained that this is because volunteers will be placed on call based on their availability and should be within 30 minutes in case a new participant comes into headquarters.

Everyone who currently volunteers to be an Angel does so because “they either heard about the program or are somehow connected to West Orange,” or because they are passionate about helping others who are in need, he added.

“We have some of our volunteers who had family members either with issues or that passed away because of their issues,” said McDonald. “So, they're truly passionate about trying to help.”

With drug abuse and the opioid epidemic ravaging the nation regardless of socioeconomic status thanks in great part to illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids like Fentanyl, McDonald stated that the community must come together to “attack the problem in any way possible.”

“This program is just a way to really affect someone’s life who needs help the most,” he said. “Nobody wants to admit they have a family member who's addicted to drugs or had an overdose because of addiction. There's a stigma to it, so a lot of people don't want to talk about it and they just try to sweep it under the carpet; but unless we all get out there and talk about it, [only then can we] try to solve the issue.”

According to a press release issued by the Township of West Orange, anyone who wishes to become a volunteer Angel and help address the issues of addiction is urged to contact the WOPD for more information on the application process. After training, volunteers will be put in close personal contact with those requesting assistance with addiction and recovery.

For more information, contact Lt. McDonald at 973-325-4036 or RMcDonald@wopd.org.