When the hotline rings at Giving Hope retreat in Lacombe, any time of the day or night, someone is there to answer the police officer who is seeking help for an addict.
"They just drop them off here 24 hours a day," Johnny Lunardo, chief operating officer of New Orleans Mission and Giving Hope Retreat, said of Operation Angel. The program helps those in the grip of substance abuse get help from what might seem an unlikely source: police officers.
"They call and let us know they’re coming. Then when they get here, they just drop them off," Lundardo said.
Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz started the program a year ago. "We’ve traded handcuffs for hope," he said.
It's a new way of addressing drug usage.
"Think about it," Lentz said. "We (law enforcement) had always told these folks (drug users) that we were going to catch them and lock them up, and they had always tried to duck around a corner and avoid us.
"Now, all of a sudden, we’re telling them to flag us down and ask us for help, and we’ll get it for them. What a change in direction!"
Lunardo loves it.
"It’s a fantastic relationship," he said. Officers are "handing them off to us. It’s like the Good Samaritan ... they’re actually doing God’s work."
Giving Hope is located at what was once the K-Bar-B Youth Ranch.
Operation Angel represents a 180-degree turn from the "St. Slammany" days of now-disgraced former District Attorney Walter Reed, Lentz pointed out. In its first year, 67 people have made contact with the Covington Police Department alone.
When other law enforcement agencies are included, the number is well over 100, he said.
When someone is dropped off at Giving Hope, the first step is a brief intake evaluation. "If they’re homeless and just need shelter, we send them to the mission, and they get 21 days," Lunardo said. "If they’re looking for serious help, we evaluate them and determine their needs, and they commit to our 12-month program.
“Everyone goes to the mission first ... that’s like the hospital.”
Lentz found out about Operation Angel from Leonard Campanello, the police chief in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who launched the program in 2015. At the time, Lentz said a new approach was needed. "The war on drugs is over," he said. "We lost."
Lentz said a 911 call his department received caused him to begin looking for options other than incarceration. During the call, made by an overdosed addict’s wife, Lentz said he could hear babies crying in the background.
"He was on the floor dying, and she was begging for help," he said. "We got there and helped him and took him to the hospital. We arrested him, and we went back and arrested her. I got to thinking, 'What have we done? We haven’t helped anybody.' "
That's when he started looking for more efficient ways to stem drug use and save lives, and he came up with Operation Angel.
For his efforts, Lentz has been recognized by numerous organization, including being invited to participate in a White House gathering on drug use.
Lentz got departments in Mandeville, Slidell, Madisonville and Pearl River to participate, as well as the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office. He has met with agencies from across the state and has a meeting coming up with the district attorney of Evangeline Parish about the program.
"We have to realize that we cannot arrest our way out of a problem," he said. "We have to reinvent the way we do business and start addressing problems versus responding to them."
From Lentz’s perspective, the cost of the program is minimal.
"A tank of gas," he said. The addict comes in and asks for help, and police take them to Giving Hope. "The officers are in their cars already ... it’s the cost of the gas," he said.
Lentz noted that there is at least one overdose a week in Covington alone.
"If only one person walks in to get help, it’s worth it," he said.