It was billed as “Coffee with a Cop,” but there was a lot more to it than just caffeine.
Belleville residents were invited to chat with local police officers last Wednesday evening, Jan. 18, at the senior center, Franklin Ave. and Mill St.
In one respect, it was a repeat of a similar meet-and-greet that Police Chief Mark Minichini arranged this past October at the same time at four different eateries around the township.
“They were all well-attended,” the chief said, “but that was during the day. This time, we decided to have it at night and at one centralized location. And we added a forum on early warning signs of drug abuse.”
Also on hand were representatives of Essex County Community Health Services who offered helpful advice and pamphlets.
From the Belleville PD, Det. Sgt. John McAloon and Dets. Rafael Reyes and Matthew Dox, all assigned to the department’s narcotics squad, gave an enlightening but alarming report on a nationwide opioid epidemic that hasn’t sidestepped Belleville.
Since the start of 2017, said McAloon, “we’ve already lost two of our residents to drug overdoses.”
But Belleville isn’t alone in dealing with this scourge.
“It’s crippling cities across the country,” McAloon said. And, he added, much of the supply is coming “across our border, from Newark.”
“If you know somebody with a drug problem, let us know about it,” he said, so that the department can get them help – from people like Roberto Alvarez, program monitor of Essex County’s Office of Addiction Services.
Alvarez, whose office may be reached 24/7 toll-free at 844-276-2777, said people who call – (all information is kept confidential) – can be referred to drug or alcohol detox and/or residential services at no cost.
Other resources available, according to the BPD, are N.J. Connect for Recovery, accessible at 855-652-3737, and DRS (Drug Rehab Services), reachable at 800-304-2219.
Noting that Gov. Chris Christie has made getting opioid abusers clean as a priority in his last year in office, McAloon said: “If you don’t want to see your husbands, brothers, sisters or other family members lost to drugs, call us or the county.”
He said the BPD will be setting up a confidential phone line for people to call the department for assistance.
“Users/abusers should make effort to get help,” he added.
At the same time, he said, the BPD “is going to target drug dealers” for arrest and prosecution.
While the BPD saved 36 lives in 2016 by the use of the opioid antidote NARCAN, it only “masks” the underlying problem, McAloon said.
Between 2015 and 2016, the number of drug-related incidents has virtually doubled, according to the BPD. Narcotics arrests jumped from 188 to 371 and drug overdoses, from 17 to 36.
Dets. Reyes and Dox elaborated on how the crisis has mushroomed, with many victims starting out by overdependence on expensive pain reliever prescription drugs – the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S. – and then switching to a cheaper alternative – heroin.
“Right now,” Dox said, “you can buy a bag of heroin in Newark for $4.”
And, for abusers who’ve just come off a recovery treatment program but weaken and opt to take a refresher “hit,” the risk becomes even more dire, said Dox, because, “there’s a lot of bad heroin going around,” and the repeat abuser may not survive.
Just how pervasive has heroin become? Try this stat: “(Some) 4.8 million Americans have used it at least once,” Reyes said.
In Belleville, the habit can start early, the detectives said, at teen “D parties,” as they are commonly known, where youths have been known to mix prescription drugs with heroin and booze.
Warning signs of substance abuse are fairly evident, the detectives said. Nausea and/or loss of appetite, extended sleeping, abrupt changes of behavior, moodiness, highs and lows, flu-like symptoms like a constant runny nose, dizziness, dry mouth, skin infections, slurred speech, constricted pupils, neglected appearance, hostility are among the most common, they said.
For parents, tough love can be essential to preventing their kids from falling into the drug abys, McAloon said.
“Parents should go through their kids’ phones, their rooms, cars,” he added.
Adults can just as easily fall victim to the perils of drug overuse, even by accident, as recounted by Belleville resident Sue Hands, director of Essex County Community Health Services, who attended last week’s forum.
She said her sister, who lived in Newark, was thrown off a horse in 2008 and was prescribed opiates to relieve the pain from her injuries – but ended up exceeding the legal limit, took additional meds she got from others and combined those meds with alcohol – a recipe that, ultimately, led to her death in 2013 at the age of 52.
As if the drug situation wasn’t enough to worry about, the BPD also warned about scams targeting area senior citizens by those posing as “water department” employees or as PSE&G repairmen as a ruse to get inside homes to steal.
Chief Minichini said he hoped the larger message of the evening got through: “We want people to get to know the officers in their neighborhoods and we want our officers to know their needs. We want the public to know, ‘it’s not us versus them’ – we all breathe the same air. Let’s work together for a better Belleville.”