By Marion Filler
Morris County has not escaped the wave of opioid overdoses sweeping the country.
But the Morris County Sheriff’s Office is trying something new in hopes of stemming the fatal tide.
It’s called the Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative (PAARI).
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem, so let’s be different,” Sheriff James Gannon said this week at the Morris County Office of Emergency Management in Parsippany.
Under PAARI, a person struggling with addiction can go to a police station and ask for help. They then will be connected with a recovery specialist.
Conversely, police can approach anyone who appears to be suffering from addiction, and ask if he or she wants treatment.
It’s patterned after a program introduced in Massachusetts in 2015, as an alternative to incarceration for people battling substance abuse. About 430 law enforcement agencies in 33 states have signed on so far.
Morris County’s version emerged from discussion among the sheriff’s office, county Prosecutor Fredric Knapp, police chiefs from Morristown and other towns across the county, and mental health and addiction experts from Daytop New Jersey and the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris.
They focused on bringing services to at-risk clients in the field.
“We overcame the AIDs epidemic and this is the next battle,” Knapp said. “It has to be won.”
The Sheriff’s Office secured a $332,658 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for what county authorities described as New Jersey’s first joint effort by municipal police and non-profit agencies to fight the opioid epidemic.
Drug laws will continue to be enforced, officials said. But now police will have an additional role to play.
“There is no group that has better leverage to connect people to recovery and life saving treatment than law enforcement,” said Jim Curtin, executive director of Daytop – NJ.
Robert Davidson, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Inc., agreed.
He recalled being a young psychiatric social worker and talking to a rookie police officer about who had more contact with addicts and the mentally ill.
Hands down, it was the rookie cop.
“This tells us that the mental health community and the addiction community need to work together with the law enforcement community if we want to solve this community problem,” Davidson said.
“As we have seen with other PAARI initiatives across the country, this program will create a pathway to treatment and recovery, which will ultimately prevent overdose deaths and improve community safety and well-being,” PAARI USA Executive Director Allie Hunter McDade said at Wednesday’s Morris County launch.
Morristown police are honored to participate, said town Public Safety Director Michael Corcoran Jr.
“Addiction touches all families, and we look forward to helping people rebuild their lives,” Corcoran said.
For the last two years, Morris County has deployed Hope One, a mobile van that parks in different locations throughout the county. It serves refreshments, and aims to engage with people who need assistance.
“Everything starts with a cup of coffee and buns,” said Gannon. “So far, 6,400 unique folks have come up to the truck and asked what we are doing. And then they say, ‘Yeah, I have a story.’ We’ve been out 243 times and every 10.8 minutes there is a new contact.”
The PAARI logo has been added to the van, which parks in communities for five-hour stretches. Thanks to the new funding, it now will be staffed with screeners and peer recovery specialists such as Kelly LaBar, once an addict herself.
“Whatever they want to do, a peer can assist them. I get to help my people,” she said.
With immediate access to records and insurance information, screeners can directly contact treatment facilities to accept patients requiring urgent care.
“This will be one-stop shopping,” said Gannon.
“We go to homeless encampments — and yes, Morris County, one of the top five counties in the U.S.– has them. We go to community kitchens, and we go to where people are dying and overdosing.
“We’ve trained over 1,600 people in the use of Narcan (an opioid antidote nasal spray). It’s made a difference in Morris County. Most states are up 15 percent since last year and we are down 1 percent in fatal overdoses. It’s still way too many.”
The sheriff’s office says at least 32 lives have been saved by people administering Narcan obtained from their visits to Hope One.