TOMS RIVER – Five years ago, the Ocean County Prosecutor didn’t need a platform, said Bradley Billhimer, the man who took over that job in October.
The prosecutor’s job used to be more straightforward, as being one of the top law enforcement officers in the region. You lock up bad guys and protect people.
The opioid epidemic changed all that. Ocean County saw 53 overdose deaths in 2012. This doubled to 112 reported overdose deaths in 2013. That number would almost double again to 216 in 2016, before dropping to 163 in 2017. However, the county is back up to 193 as of Dec. 4.
Billhimer’s predecessor, Joseph Coronato, had said it was eye-opening. His first year as prosecutor was 2013, just as Ocean County became vulnerable to the one-two punch of heroin and fentanyl. He saw 10 overdoses in seven days. That’s when he knew he needed a plan to combat the epidemic with more than enforcement. There needed to be more education and treatment for addicts.
Billhimer told the mayors and government officials assembled at the Ocean County Mayors’ Association meeting that he would be continuing Coronato’s Blue HART – Heroin Addiction Recovery Treatment – program. This program allows substance abusers to turn in their dangerous substances at participating police departments without any repercussions. They can then receive free addiction treatment and recovery services.
“The chiefs were wary of me because they thought I would cut it,” Billhimer said. But he’s not. It will be part of his platform to combat drug addiction in the county.
Another part will be teaching teenagers coping skills. Stress is always going to come, and kids need to know how to handle it. The metaphor he used was that training would change someone from an egg to a tennis ball. If you hit the ground, you need to be able to bounce back. The class would be adapted from similar strategies taught to police officers.
He also spoke highly of #NotEvenOnce, a program that is already making great strides. Created by Manchester police, and used by Berkeley, this is a three-day program where police bring realistic information about drug abuse into the classroom, and a recovered addict also tells their story. He’d like to see that expanded throughout the county.
Both programs would be worked into health education, he said, so they wouldn’t impact regular class time.
This is not to say that enforcement is not part of the plan. Those who deal will be prosecuted more harshly. Those who are in possession of heroin will have a treatment plan as part of their conviction.
In the whirlwind of meetings he’s had over the first 60 days of his appointment, he’s talked to a lot of experts about a lot of different programs. But there’s one piece still missing: He told the mayors and government officials that a long-term patient treatment facility is still lacking in Ocean County.
He called for collaboration with all levels of government and education to stop the spread of addiction. He said he’s honored to have been appointed to the job, but he’s keenly aware that it is a five-year term.
Currently, a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana is being debated and mayors wanted to know his stance on the issue. “I’m not a politician but I am a father,” he said. “I took an oath to support the law and enforce the law and that’s what I’ll do.”