NORRISTOWN — The pandemic may have overshadowed the opioid epidemic but that didn’t make the addiction crisis go away.
“In fact, it got worse,” said Lt. Michael Bishop of the Norristown Police Department, coordinator of the highly successful Operation Rebound program, which is helping individuals get the medical treatment they need through partnerships with such groups as Gaudenzia.
“It never went away. We actually saw a rise in opioid overdoses, both fatal and non-fatal during the pandemic. So we knew it was time to get started. We had to do something right away and not wait for this epidemic to stop and go away.”
The department’s Sgt. Bob Langdon set the groundwork for Operation Rebound by getting in touch with Erin Pressel, Gaudenzia’s chief strategy and business development officer, in a search “for an effective path forward,” Bishop said. “Unfortunately, a couple of things happened … he went out for surgery, and then COVID, so it got delayed. If it wasn’t for Sgt. Langdon this never would have gotten started, But while he was out for surgery we decided to move forward with the plan to get everybody trained. I was given the ball to run with it. Many communities, including ours, have seen a substantial increase in the number of people dying from a fatal opioid overdose. The Norristown Police Department has been fortunate to be able to collaborate with Gaudenzia and the Montgomery County Office of Drug and Alcohol to ease the pain and suffering. We got members of the police department, along with Gaudenzia’s staff all attending the same training. It’s a diversion program, where people with opioid use disorders or addictions are worked into a treatment program instead of introducing them into the criminal justice system.”
Langdon added, “The ideas that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem, and the notion that addiction is a disease best addressed through treatment helped drive me throughout this process. We don’t arrest people for contracting cancer or heart disease. We shouldn’t criminalize addictions.”
Overdoses in Norristown and all of Montgomery County began skyrocketing during the spring and summer of the 2020 COVID pandemic, Bishop noted. During the fall of 2020, 38 officers, professional staff, NPD Chaplains, and members of Gaudenzia attended training in the diversion programs.
To bypass the challenges of the pandemic the training was presented virtually by Police Treatment and Community Collaboration (PTACC) out of Chicago, Pressel explained.
“We planned on having PTACC come down and do the training in person but we had to coordinate everything virtually. We also provide treatment virtually too, so we do Telehealth for the folks that prefer that, and it’s been very successful. We partnered with Montgomery County Office of Drug and Alcohol to get a grant in order to fund the project,” she added. “We had been talking about it and trying to put something together for a couple of years but the money was always the problem. So when we were able to get some extra funds we could provide training, some extra hours for the officers and they do a lot of outreach now with our CRS (Certified Recovery Specialist) staff. We’ve been able to get numerous people into treatment, which is just amazing. We’re hoping to reduce the amount of overdoses in Norristown and throughout Montgomery County.”
Police officers lead the community engagement due to knowing where the homeless encampments are located, Pressel said.
“Our staff partners with them and they’ll do outreach at the areas, asking people if they’re interested in treatment, how we can help them and provide them with other resources. I know they’ve been giving out socks and gloves and things like that to people. We try to help people the best that we can, not just providing resources for treatment but it they need any other resources, trying to provide that to them too so they’re able to get well.”
Gaudenzia maintains an outpatient branch at 166 W. Main St., Norristown, which partners with the Norristown Police Department.
“We’ve always had a really good relationship with (law enforcement),” Pressel noted. “We do this with Norristown but we always do this initiative with other law enforcement. We have a call center located in North Umberland County that serves as hub for a variety of resources, for police officers but also for the public. When somebody calls we’re able to provide them with any kind of resources they need, or we can coordinate an assessment for a client so they can get into treatment.”
Gaudenzia operates about 80 treatment programs in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Delaware.
“We can get calls from anywhere and refer somebody anywhere if they’re appropriate for us or they want to go somewhere else, but in addition, we partner other providers. If somebody is homeless we can get them to a shelter resource, or if they’re in need of clothing or food we have all of those resources available in all of the different counties, so we’re able to help with that too.”
Founded in 1968, Gaudenzia serves nearly 20,000 individuals annually, operating 180 drug and alcohol treatment programs at 105 facilities for men and women. Services include specialized programs for pregnant and parenting mothers, adolescents, and people suffering from co-occurring mental illness.
Bishop, who said that officers and Gaudenzia staff will be easier to identify in the spring when they begin wearing their branded green Polo shirts, noted that Norristown police focus on targeted areas in town where there have been prior overdose calls.
“This is done by our data that the police department captures,” he said. “There are days of the week and times of the day where we have the highest number of overdoses for a period of time and we go to these places and engage people, just talk to them. In the 250 or so contacts that we’ve had since last October we have not made one arrest, or not have needed to make one arrest. So we’re keeping with the diversion program and giving these people phone numbers and options. And not everybody we’re talking to has an addiction problem. The people we’re meeting in these areas may have a tendency to have that. Some do have addiction issues, we know that.”
A potential problem is that people can become homeless because of their addiction, Bishop allowed.
“A lot of people become homeless because they’ve lost their jobs and spent all of their money on trying to get drugs,” Bishop said. “So to break that vicious cycle is to get them housing along with treatment. That’s the whole idea, is to get these people off the street and get them into treatment and they can turn their lives. That’s why we call it Operation Rebound … rebound their lives. We want them to bounce back and become productive members of society again, away from the drugs. We’re concentrating on the opioid addiction because it’s such a crisis not only in the country but here in Montgomery County and in Norristown.”
Although no hard data is available yet, Operation Rebound has showed some promising results, Bishop said.
“I can say overdoses are down, but we can’t make that correlation yet. We’re trying to look into that and see if there is a correlation that is concrete because of the decrease in opioid overdoses and there is a decrease in opioid use, which could lead to a decrease in certain criminal activity. But that’s going to take a lot more analyzation,” he said. “Overdoses have dropped dramatically since the beginning of the program. Those in need of help are now more prone to get help.”
Bishop noted that Gaudenzia reports that there has been a significant increase in those accepting treatment, beginning slowly in 2020, and increasing five-fold in January 2021.
The name Gaudenzia itself, which is used frequently in the Italian language, conveys a story about an injured horse who ends up winning a race, Pressel said.
“When we talk about people getting into recovery they’re injured in a lot of different ways … emotionally, mentally, physically sometimes, and getting into recovery is winning the race. For me in particular I come from a law enforcement family and I think it’s very important that police officers are often the ones that (encounter) the people who need treatment first. Putting them in jail doesn’t mean they’ll get the treatment they need to get well. So, rather than arresting the way out of the problem, getting them into treatment instead is working, Since November, we’ve been successful in getting numerous people into treatment, which is amazing because that’s not always easy. And we’re not just meeting with these people one time, they’re meeting with them multiple times,” Pressel added. “A lot of times it takes multiple times to convince someone they need to enter into treatment, or they need may need to enter into treatment more than one time.”
Assistance for anyone that has a substance abuse issue, or knows someone, can be found by calling Gaudenzia’s Treatment and Recovery Hotline 1-833-976-HELP (4357). Any Norristown Police officer can also be of assistance if seen out on patrol, or stop by the Norristown Police Department at 235 E. Airy St., Norristown.