At the podium Sergeant Charles Cunningham makes his colleagues smile (colleagues from left, Detective Michael Mickens, Detective Macheo McClean, Chief Todd Conforti, Deputy Chief Wilhelm Young, April 28, 2021. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

Kathy L. was well known to Montclair Sgt. Charles Cunningham and the Montclair Vice Crimes Unit. In 2019, she overdosed six times on heroin. In July of that year, Cunningham found her in an area where she was known to have bought heroin. 

At that point, she’d overdosed twice in 24 hours. 

“I knew we had to do something extreme for her,” Cunningham said.

That’s when Cunningham reached out to Robin A. Lavorato, executive director of the Essex Health and Wellness Recovery Center, asking for help with Kathy. Cunningham and Lavorato had been working together to get residents struggling with addiction into detox programs and treatment since 2018, when she was with the Essex Opioid Task Force. In 2019, the Essex Health and Wellness Recovery Center was formed, with Lavorato taking on the directorship.

Robin Lavorato, Executive Director of Essex Health and Wellness Recovery Center, April 28. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL
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“We met [Cunningham] and two other officers, and they explained the situation. They said Kathy was a good woman, just very sick with the disease of addiction. We went to her house and we spoke with her, and we finally had her agree to go to detox,” Lavorato said.

Lavorato took her to two detox centers, but they did not take her insurance. The third one did, but did not have a bed for her until the next morning.  

“This was not a good scenario. … She promised me she would be there ready to go the next day. I wanted to believe her, but I know the drug has a strong draw and she may change her mind. I also know the drugs are strong and many laced with fentanyl, and she may overdose and die before the morning,” Lavorato said. 

“Thankfully she was there in the morning. She came out of her house — very high, but I was thrilled. She was alive and had a chance at a new life.”

Kathy came home from the center and began her outpatient program at COPE Center in Montclair. She started attending 12-step meetings, secured a sponsor and attended Bible study. She will celebrate her two years of sobriety this July, and now volunteers at EHWRC and runs a relapse prevention support group on Fridays.

“His [Cunningham] intervention was like God’s divine intervention working through him,” said Kathy.

This past winter, Cunningham again sought help from EHWRC, for Abdul, who had overdosed, the sergeant said. It was Cunningham who administered the Narcan that brought him back, he said.

Cunningham took Adhul’s phone along as he headed for the hospital. He knew the first thing Abdul would do once released would be to pick up his phone, giving Cunningham a chance to speak with him about getting treatment, he said. Abdul agreed.

After EHWRC was able to secure a placement for him, Cunningham, in a snowstorm, transported the man to the treatment program. 

The Montclair Vice Crimes Unit’s approach in many cases has police attempting to give those caught with drugs help with addiction services rather than have them face incarceration. Also part of the Vice Crimes Unit are Detective Michael Mickens and Detective Macheo McClean, who work closely with Cunningham in getting residents help. 

I am extremely proud of the efforts that Sgt. Cunningham, Detective Micheal Mickens and Detective Macheo McClean have displayed in helping individuals overcome drug addiction while spreading awareness, and understanding that treatment is the preferred alternative to incarceration when possible,” Chief Todd Conforti said.

Sergeant Charles Cunningham, who will be honored at Essex Health and Wellness Recovery Center’s Third Anniversary Celebration in June, speaks, April 28. KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

EHWRC said in a statement it’s for those efforts and others Montclair PD and Cunningham should be recognized.

In June, as EHWRC, based at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, celebrates its third anniversary, it will honor Cunningham and the Vice Crimes Unit of the Montclair Police Department for their work “in learning about addiction, understanding it is a true disease and that treatment is an alternative to incarceration for an individual committing nonviolent offenses due to the symptoms of their disease,” Lavorato said. 

“These efforts of spreading awareness, intervening and policing by Chief Conforti and his officers have made positive changes in Montclair and have saved lives.”

In 2019, 3,021 New Jerseyans overdosed and died, according to statistics compiled by EHWRC. That same year, Essex County lost 389 residents to suspected overdoses — the highest number of any county in the state. Heroin, fentanyl and cocaine were the most common drugs found in people who have died in Essex County from an overdose.

The pandemic increased those numbers, as people experienced job loss and isolation. In 2020, the state saw a 20% increase in overdoses, according to the state board of health.

During the first five months of 2020 as the pandemic hit, Montclair police responded to 17 suspected overdoses, four of which resulted in deaths. For the entire year of 2019, township police responded to 37 suspected drug overdoses, none of which were fatal, according to reports supplied by the police.

Cunningham also does speaking engagements on addiction, compassionate policing and treatment options.

He said that nearly 80% of heroin users reported misusing prescription opioids prior to heroin. He lost his brother-in-law to addiction in 2005.

“As police officers we are told we are not supposed to act with bias, but we have to act with compassion,” he told a crowd at a 2018 breakfast held at The Salvation Army.

Each of the last three years, Cunningham could also be seen walking seven miles from Newark to Caldwell, supporting EHWRC’s annual Opioid Awareness Walk.

The intervention doesn’t always work, Cunningham said, as people have to be ready to seek help — “but for the ones who finally do, we’ve had some really great successes.”