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50 calls received during first eight hours of hotline for opioid addicts

Drug addicts seeking treatment might think a police station would be the last place to go for help.

But at 7 a.m. Monday, six area police departments opened their doors to providing a critical link for treatment.

An hour later, the new addiction telephone hotline – 831-7007 – started taking calls and by 4 p.m., 50 people had called looking for help, according to Jessica Pirro, chief executive officer of Crisis Services, which operates the hotline funded by Erie County.

“We’re pleasantly surprised with the number of calls we have received. The only marketing so far has been through the media and the word is definitely getting out,” Pirro said at a news conference with county and law enforcement officials.

Highlighting the need for the hotline and open-door policy at police stations, Dr. Gale R. Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, said 224 people have died this year, through last Thursday, from confirmed or suspected opioid and heroin overdoses. Last year, there were 256 deaths in Erie County.

Town of Tonawanda Police Chief Jerry Uschold, speaking on behalf of the six participating police departments, said those suffering from addiction should not feel intimidated going to a police station.

“We’re not sure what kind of reception we’ll get, how people will feel coming in to a police station,” Uschold said. “We hope they’ll feel comfortable. We want to get them help.”

If they arrive with drugs, Uschold said the drugs will be disposed of and they will not be charged. About the only situation in which they would be arrested, the chief explained, is if there is an outstanding warrant for the person’s arrest. But, he said, there is a way around that. Individuals with warrants could call the hotline directly and make arrangements for treatment, sidestepping the need to go to a police station.

Daniel Rinaldo, the federal drug-intelligence officer for the New York-New Jersey High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said seven other area police departments will open their doors, beginning Sept. 1.

“We’re starting with six police departments, because we wanted to work out the kinks,” Rinaldo said.

The REAP (Rapid Evaluation for Appropriate Placement) program involves a police officer calling the Crisis Services hotline when an individual walks into a station. That person is then put on the phone and screened by a professional counselor at Crisis Services. A determination is then made on whether the individual will be referred to outpatient or inpatient treatment.

“If inpatient treatment is needed, Crisis Services will contact a volunteer ‘angel’ who will come to the police station and provide support while waiting for a family member or police officer to transport the person to a facility,” Rinaldo said.

The six original participating departments are Town of Tonawanda, Buffalo, Amherst, East Aurora, Niagara Falls and the Erie County Sheriff’s Office. Those departments will provide the service between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays, while the hotline will be open 24/7. The next group of police departments, starting Sept. 1, consists of Cheektowaga, Orchard Park, Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, Hamburg, Evans, Lancaster and Depew.

Rinaldo said there are 54 volunteer angels, as of Monday, and “we need as many more as are willing to come forward.”

Workers at Renaissance Addiction Services will also provide assessments of individuals to determine the most appropriate type of treatment, according to Jodie Altman, director of the Renaissance campus in West Seneca.

In addition to the hotline and REAP, Burstein announced the start of the Crisis Peer Response Team that will provide companions for those caught up in drug addiction and their loved ones at critical times.

“All of these are new programs and there are going to be some hiccups in the next few weeks,” Burstein said, adding, however, that they represent significant steps forward as a community in responding to the opiate epidemic.

Maura Kelley, executive director of the Mental Health PEER Connection, overseeing peer responses, said those in need of help should call 836-2726 to be linked with a companion.

With the new initiatives, there will not only be an improved response to the public health crisis, but an anticipated benefit to public safety, according to acting Erie County District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr.

“There was a 31 percent drop in property crimes in Gloucester, Mass., when the police chief there started the angel program,” Flaherty said. “Too often good kids who get hooked on opioids, some through sports injuries, resort to stealing to buy drugs unlike others who steal out of greed.”

And, in the ongoing effort to promote awareness of the different services available to those struggling with addiction, the Erie County Opiate Task Force is sponsoring a resource fair from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, 200 St. Gregory Court, off Maple Road, Amherst.

There will be parent and family support organizations, opportunities to speak one-on-one with medical, prevention, treatment, wellness and counseling professionals; drive-thru drug disposal, and training on how to use Narcan, the antidote for opiate overdoses.


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