SCARBOROUGH — Operation HOPE, a Police Department initiative that encourages substance misusers to seek help and recovery, has expanded its outreach with a follow-up program to visit people who have overdosed or been involved in a police incident fueled by opioids.

According to a statement from the Maine attorney general on April 18, drug overdose deaths declined in Maine last year for the first time since 2011, to 354 from 417 in 2017.

But local officials are still working hard to address this public health epidemic by implementing new initiatives to tackle the opioid crisis.

Two Operation HOPE volunteers now respond within 24-48 hours to encourage people to seek treatment and give them information on the program and other available resources in the area.

Previously, since it’s establishment in October 2015, Operation HOPE, or Heroin-Opiate Prevention Effort, had only helped individuals who directly sought treatment at the Police Department.

According to Police Chief Robbie Moulton, 729 people from Maine and the U.S. have reached out to Operation HOPE for help, and 371 have been placed into treatment since its 2016 inception.

“The first two days are crucial, and it’s one of the things we hadn’t really been dealing with,” said Moulton. “There is a small window of time that people are willing to talk about getting some help, and we saw the importance in providing a service catered to that need.”

The Scarborough Police Department isn’t the only organization working hard to address drug overdose prevention in Maine.

Oliver Bradeen, who has been a substance use disorder liaison for the Portland Police Department since 2016, has seen firsthand just how dire the opioid epidemic has become. He said resources are scarce, so he spends most of his time trying to support users the best he can until resources become available.

“There is no requirement for people to stop using when they speak to me, but we do look for paths to treatment, which may also mean finding employment or utilizing medical health services,” he said. “That’s probably the biggest difference between my job and Operation HOPE’s new initiative.”

Bradeen said for many seeking treatment, walking into a police department as an active user can be an intimidating experience, regardless of how welcoming officials may try to be.

“The stigma still exists,” he said. “But the Operation HOPE follow-up expansion definitely sounds like an improvement in addition to the resources they already provide.”

Moulton said the decision to expand the program also stems from a desire to lower crime rates in Scarborough: a significant number of thefts, burglaries, robberies and other crimes are committed by people suffering from substance use disorder.

That information, he said, shouldn’t change how those seeking assistance are treated. Moulton said a common misconception about those who suffer from substance use disorder is they can stop if they want to, but it’s not that simple. Withdrawal symptoms can be so severe that the person will go back to using just to ease the pain.

“I’ll be the first to admit that when we first started this program, I had in mind what someone addicted to heroin looked and acted like – everyone has their own vision,” he said. “But when people started to come in and I was talking to folks, I soon learned it doesn’t fit that mental image I had. These are people of all ages, professions and economic backgrounds.”

Moulton said he hopes there will come a time when a more comprehensive regional or state program is put in place; that someday anyone can walk into a police department, get a screening and be provided transportation or means necessary to get them started in their recovery process.

But until that happens, the department will try its best to help all those in need and implement the follow-up program as often as possible.

“The people we see are really broken. They need help. We are fortunate to be able to be that glimmer of hope to help them find their way,” Moulton said. “Some people have said ‘this is not what police work is all about’ and ‘this isn’t our problem’ and I take issue with that. Helping people is what we’re all about. It’s not just putting bad guys in jail. We’re here to protect and serve and we can’t forget that.”

Krysteana Scribner can be reached at [email protected] or 780-9094. Follow her on Twitter: @krysteana2016.

Scarborough Police Department’s Operation HOPE has expanded its efforts to reach out to people with substance use disorder with a new follow-up program to visit people who have recently overdosed.

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