ELIZABETH, NJ — On Friday, May 7, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Elizabeth Police Department and Prevention Links hosted a pop-up Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365 event on Third Street in downtown Elizabeth. The event aimed to connect area residents struggling with substance use disorder with recovery resources.
The event followed the announcement on Thursday, May 6, by acting U.S. attorney Rachael A. Honig and acting Prosecutor Lyndsay V. Ruotolo that four Elizabeth residents were placed in federal arrest for their roles in conspiracies to distribute and possess with intent to distribute heroin and fentanyl. The arrests followed a collaborative investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, special agents and task force officers with the FBI with the direction of Special Agent in Charge George M. Crouch Jr. in Newark, officers from the Elizabeth Police Department with the leadership of Police Chief Giacomo Sacca and Director Earl Graves, and investigators of the Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office, with the leadership of Prosecutor Michael H. Robertson.
Seizing on the opportunity created by the arrest of the four defendants, the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Elizabeth Police Department and Prevention Links hosted the OHH 24/7/365 pop-up event in the very area that was previously being used to conduct open-air narcotics transactions during the long-term investigation.
“Up until Thursday, those struggling with substance use disorder were coming to this neighborhood to buy illegal opioids. On Thursday, those who profited from their struggles were arrested. And on Friday morning, when would-be buyers returned to this neighborhood to purchase narcotics, they were instead met by members of law enforcement and recovery specialists working together to provide them with a new option and bring recovery resources to those who need it most. We must meet people where they are,” said Prosecutor Ruotolo, adding, “We in law enforcement need to constantly reinvent the ways in which we prevent crime, save lives, and combat the opioid epidemic. We knew these arrests would disrupt the chain of product, but that was not enough. We wanted to seize on the unique opportunity of a lack of supply to address the demand. So we brought OHH 24/7/365 to the neighborhood and provided would-be buyers with a chance to seek help, no questions asked.”
During the four-hour pop-up operation on Friday, May 7, 25 county residents engaged with recovery specialists from Prevention Links regarding the services provided through OHH 24/7/365. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Elizabeth Police Department and Prevention Links intend to maintain a presence in the neighborhood.
“This investigation was a result of community and intra-agency collaboration,” Sacca and Graves said in a joint statement. “The plans moving forward call for maintaining the safety of the neighborhood to allow for a greater quality of life.”
“It is important that peer recovery specialists are in the community, meeting people where they are at, in the moments they need support most,” says Sabrina Sabater, director of Recovery Support Services at Prevention Links. “We are very grateful to our partners for their creativity and collaboration, which increases the accessibility of recovery support by bringing them right into the community. We never know when someone will accept an offer to receive support. It is through innovative approaches to addressing substance use disorder such as this that together we can help save lives.”
The Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365 program brings lifesaving recovery assistance to those in the throes of addiction throughout our community. Thanks to a partnership between the Union County Prosecutor’s Office, Prevention Links and the Union County Police Chiefs Association, any time an individual is arrested in Union County for a low-level opioid offense, they are immediately offered access to free recovery services through Prevention Links. The program also operates a 24/7 hotline at 855-825-3275, which residents can call at any time to begin their recovery journey.
Operation Helping Hand was first conceived of by Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal when he served as Bergen County Prosecutor. As attorney general, Grewal has grown the program to reach every county in the state of New Jersey. Union County was the first county to expand the program to a 24/7/365 model, thanks to the generous support of the Governor’s Office, the Department of Law and Public Safety and the Union County Board of County Commissioners.
This initiative, and others geared toward addressing the opioid epidemic, have been bolstered by grant funding obtained from state and county governments. Specifically, the Prosecutor’s Office was initially awarded $62,500 from the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety’s 2019 Overdose Data to Action Operation Helping Hand Grant. The Prosecutor’s Office was also the recipient of $100,000 in grant funding through Governor Phil Murphy’s Operation Helping Hand Grant.
The acceptance of these blocks of grant funding was approved by the Union County Board of County Commissioners and county manager Edward T. Oatman. In addition, the Commissioners also dedicated $110,000 in direct county funding to Prevention Links for the expansion of Operation Helping Hand in 2020.
For more information on Union County’s Operation Helping Hand 24/7/365, or to learn more about beginning a recovery journey, visit https://ucnj.org/prosecutor/initiatives/operation-helping-hand-24-7-365/.
Photos Courtesy of Union County Prosecutor’s Office