In the state of New Jersey—as in many other U.S. states—parents can take infants they can’t provide for to a fire station or police station— “safe havens”—and surrender them without any legal repercussions. That New Jersey Safe Haven law went into effect in 2000. It was also the model for a program to help addicts in the city of West Orange.
Chief James Abbott of the West Orange Police Department says launching the city’s drug addiction response program called “Operation Hope” was a joint project of Township Attorney Richard Trenk and the West Orange PD. And like the Safe Haven law, it was designed to give desperate people a chance to get themselves out of serious trouble without prosecution.
Operation Hope allows drug addicts to come to the West Orange PD headquarters and turn in drugs, needles, and other paraphernalia without legal consequences. They can also declare that they need help and receive recovery support. The agency partners with Integrity House, a Newark-based treatment center whose staff has the experience to assist addicts. The addicts are also assigned a volunteer “angel” to help guide them through the recovery process. Often the angels have had personal experience with addiction.
Abbott says the angels in Operation Hope were modeled on the West Orange PD’s Domestic Violence Response Team. Abbott, who has served 42 years with the West Orange PD and 25 as the agency’s chief, says the Domestic Violence Response Team was started more than 20 years ago. The team is made up of volunteers who are specially trained to help abuse victims obtain temporary restraining orders designed to protect them from their abusers.
One very big difference between a domestic violence program and Operation Hope is that the abused people coming to the police are victims who have committed no criminal offense. The same cannot be said of all of the people seeking help at the police station for addiction because some of them are criminals just because they are possessing and using schedule one narcotics. So there were legal issues that had to be ironed out.
“I wanted people who came in looking for help to be able to turn in their drugs and get that help without any criminal implications,” Abbott says. The chief enlisted state assembly member John McKeon to sponsor legislation that would allow law enforcement agencies to provide safe haven for addicts. The legislation passed and with the legal foundation in place, West Orange PD could launch Operation Hope.
Today, Operation Hope has helped dozens of addicts, sometimes as many as five per month. Chief Abbott emphasizes that the program does not care about the addict’s housing status and scholarships are available for treatment. Also, Operation Hope does not require West Orange residency.
Abbott says he is sometimes contacted by other New Jersey law enforcement leaders who want to start addict help programs in their communities. The chief says he is quick to tell other chiefs that Operation Hope would not be possible without the work of many people in the west orange community. He heaps praise on West Orange PD Capt. Richard J. Mcdonald Jr., West Orange PD officers, city attorney Trenk, other West Orange employees, the Volunteer Angels, RWJ Barnabus Health, and Integrity House. “This is very much a team effort. There’s a lot of work done by a lot of people besides me,” he says.