Nassau police and other officials, including County Executive Bruce Blakeman, want parents to teach themselves — and their children — about the dangers of opioids, especially fentanyl, responsible for most fatal overdoses countywide in recent years.
The urgency of the message was on display Wednesday night at the Nassau County Police Academy, where Blakeman, Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, District Attorney Anne Donnelly and addiction experts spoke at a seminar about the ongoing narcotics scourge.
"We need to get to our children," Ryder told the hundreds of attendees — including a large number of teens. "We need to have the hard conversation."
The gathering was put on as part of "Operation Natalie," a county initiative started in 2017 as a multipronged strategy that includes beefed-up law enforcement, drug treatment, education, diversion and aftercare to combat the opioid epidemic. It was the first "Operation Natalie" meeting in two years after previous cancellations because of the pandemic. Nassau police and other officials hosted 10 "Operation Natalie"` education seminars in 2019.
It's named after Natalie Ciappa, a Massapequa teen who died in 2008 from a fatal overdose.
Defeating an opioid epidemic that has led to thousands of deaths on Long Island since the early 2000s, Blakeman said, will require investments in drug treatment, mental health services, family counseling and education. He vowed to increase funding for such programs "so everybody in this county gets what they need."
Donnelly said her office will do what it takes to prosecute drug dealers, especially those responsible for fatal overdoses.
"It is my promise to everybody here, we will not go backward," she said. "We will only go forward."
Natalie’s father, Victor Ciappa, was the most powerful speaker of the night. He described how his 18-year-old daughter, a former cheerleader and outstanding student he described as sweet and outgoing, got involved with the wrong people and became addicted to heroin. Ciappa and his wife Doreen — also in attendance — knew nothing about the signs of addiction.
"We don’t need your sympathy," Ciappa said. "We need to educate you."
He urged parents to inspect their children's rooms, check their phones and meet their friends if they suspect drug use.
Nassau and Suffolk had reduced the number of fatal overdoses in the years before the pandemic but those numbers shot back up in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Overdose deaths jumped 34% in Nassau in 2020 and 12% in Suffolk, according to health officials. Public health experts said drug and alcohol abuse skyrocketed during the pandemic due to grief, loss, social isolation and financial anxiety.
The pandemic also led to the rise of fentanyl, a cheap, easy-to-manufacture and extremely deadly synthetic opioid.
Nassau police Det. Lt. Matthew Landman, who commands the department's narcotics unit, said 84% of the county's 214 fatal overdoses in 2021 were due to fentanyl, which is 40 to 100 times more potent — and far more profitable — than heroin.
Landman noted that there might be three or four million Americans willing to use heroin — but millions more who are comfortable using prescription or illicit pills recreationally. That is why, he added, suppliers are using fentanyl to cut cocaine or press it into counterfeit Xanax or Adderall.
"Everything we are seeing now," Landman said, "is fentanyl."