EVERETT — Sheriff Adam Fortney is boosting law enforcement’s presence on the southern outskirts of Everett city limits, in response to frustrations from local business owners who say the area is plagued by crime, homelessness and drug abuse.
The focal point of the effort is the intersection of Airport Road and Highway 99, where one side of the street is patrolled by Everett police and the other belongs to the sheriff’s office. Typically two deputies handle calls in the vicinity. Now, several times a week, dozens of law enforcement officers will be assigned to the area in a partnership with Everett police, indefinitely, according to the sheriff’s office.
Local businesses have complained about people breaking into cars, damaging property, defecating openly, and injecting or smoking illegal drugs in broad daylight.
“We’ve had a lot of crime issues in that area, and have dealt with some of the heavy drug use, transients, and it’s really taxed the area businesses,” said Tyler Johnson, a property manager of the Mariner Square business park, on a recent episode of Fortney’s podcast.
Johnson, and others who work and live nearby, have praised Fortney’s decision to bolster law enforcement there.
“It was nice to hear that the cops were starting to step up their patrols,” said Jimmy Loyd, a manager for Bud Hut, a marijuana dispensary at 11603 Highway 99. “Especially on this one stretch. Because we see a lot of it daily.”
According to a map hosted by LexisNexis, about 300 crimes were reported within a mile of the intersection. Most often, the crimes were car prowls, thefts, thefts of a motor vehicle and vandalism.
Others question whether underlying issues can be addressed by cracking down on people who, in many cases, are struggling with addiction and homelessness. Some advocates say such patrol efforts can saddle destitute people with low-level charges — and make it even harder for them to get off the streets.
“Persecuting the unsheltered and the homeless is not a great big thing to be proud of. It’s inhumane,” said Leslie Brown, a former police captain who helps provide food and basic necessities to folks experiencing homelessness in the county. “Until this sheriff and this community starts to understand that this is a public health crisis and not criminality, then things will continue as they are.”
But Fortney has said the patrol emphasis strategy, which he calls Operation Clean Streets, provides “accountability with compassion.” For years before he was elected, he was a night shift patrol sergeant at the agency’s South Precinct, which includes the intersection in question.
“Sometimes when law enforcement talks about proactive policing, or stepping up patrols and things like that, we get tagged with, ‘You just want to lock everybody up.’ That’s not what we want to do,” the sheriff said on the Dec. 7 episode of his podcast. “If we can fix human beings in the process, that’s a better solution than locking people up. But we’re not going to shy away from the enforcement component.”
The sheriff’s office began heightened patrols earlier this year at Airport and Highway 99, but scaled back the approach in late summer due to staffing shortages, according to a recent news release.
In the initial six-month period, the agency reported calls for service fell by 30% for a set of crimes the sheriff’s office focused on within the emphasis area.
When authorities kicked off Operation Clean Streets on Dec. 8, more than a dozen people were arrested, including theft suspects and alleged drug dealers, according to the sheriff’s office.
Deputies seized more than $1,600 believed to be related to drug deals, and recovered a stolen vehicle, two stolen guns, 215 grams of meth, 30 grams of heroin, 133 fentanyl pills and 10 grams of MDMA, the news release stated. Nearly 30 vehicles, previously tagged for removal, were impounded.
A missing 16-year-old was also found.
Seven people were referred to the sheriff’s Office of Neighborhoods, which includes social workers. All declined services, said spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe.
That night, a trailer housing the county’s incident command and communication center was positioned in a Home Depot parking lot, where officials worked with regional crime task forces, social workers and the Everett Police Department. A heat-sensing drone was deployed to monitor deputies’ safety as they patrolled, O’Keefe said.
Snohomish County’s LEAD program is also in the mix. The diversion strategy allows law enforcement to refer someone who would otherwise be arrested to a caseworker, who can connect that person with resources. The majority of the participants are homeless.
LEAD’s goal is to “avoid arresting people,” Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell told The Daily Herald earlier this month. “It provides them services to address their behavioral or mental health issues.”
Meanwhile, tension has grown between law enforcement, local residents and a loosely organized volunteer group that distributes food, clothes and other goods.
Andrew SanAgustin, secretary of Alderbrook Village West’s homeowner association, said he calls the police on abandoned cars and people using drugs several times a month. He has called on the volunteer “mutual aid group,” too.
“We’re calling the police because we want to get on their radar,” SanAgustin said. “The police are our allies as far as I’m concerned.”
Recent block watch alert emails from the HOA have called mutual aid volunteers “enabling” and said the neighborhood is “fighting back.” One told residents to “protect yourselves, your property, neighbors, and especially our children, by necessary and legal means,” linking to information on state gun laws.
The patrol emphasis, SanAgustin said, has had a “delightful” effect.
Luisana “Lu” Hernandez, who helps give out food and essentials at mutual aid events, accused business owners and law enforcement of “prioritizing property and criminalizing poverty.” Businesses have been calling police not only on people who are homeless, but also activists who are trying to help, said Hernandez, a member of a county advisory group that examines law and justice issues.
“Anyone paying attention understands that feeding people is crime prevention,” Hernandez wrote in a statement.
A week after the first patrol emphasis, mutual aid volunteers gathered again in the strip of grass between the Home Depot parking lot and the pavement of Highway 99, handing out slices of pizza from 18-inch Costco pies.
Nichole Ahrnkiel, 42, came for the free lunch. She used to live on the surrounding streets. Now, she’s staying nearby with her mother.
“This is what I know. This is where my friends are,” she said. “We’re people. We have to take up space somewhere.”
She understands concerns of local businesses, she said, but the people who loiter there aren’t major criminals.
“They’re petty thieves and small-time drug dealers,” she said.
She recalled being arrested on an outstanding warrant and coming back to find her tent dismantled and her possessions gone.
“You lose everything,” she said. “You come back with nowhere to be. You just got to start over again.”
‘Somebody has to do something’
After the day’s patrol emphasis ended Dec. 8, normal staff patrol deputies were called to Bud Hut for a robbery around 11 p.m.
A man walked into the store and demanded cash from the till, said Loyd, the store’s manager. The robber said he had a gun and threatened to shoot the on-duty employee if he didn’t hand over the money.
The culprit got away with about $900 cash and $1,500 worth of product, Loyd said.
“It’s scary to be a business on that strip right now,” said Beth Thomas, operations manager for Bud Hut’s five stores.
Like other business owners near city limits, she’s hopeful police will get troublemakers off the highway, whether to a jail or to an addiction treatment center.
“I just don’t know where these people are going to go,” Thomas said. “It’s definitely going to be a fight, but somebody has to do something about it.”
Other arrest reports detailed a series of petty crimes Dec. 8.
One homeless man, 34, was arrested for investigation of misdemeanor assault following a fight outside of Fast Eddies Valero gas station, according to one arrest report. One person suffered minor injuries in the scuffle, the report says.
At the same gas station, two more men were arrested in an alleged drug deal, according to two more arrest reports. One of them admitted to a deputy that he traded a bottle of tequila and $9 for three fentanyl pills, the records say.
At the Wendy’s restaurant next door, a sheriff’s sergeant arrested a 50-year-old man on a drug-related warrant out of Texas. The sergeant reported the man was carrying a sleeping bag and a black duffle bag with wet clothes, food and 20 hypodermic needles inside.
‘Catch and release’
Robert Smiley, who runs The Hand Up Project and does regular outreach in the neighborhood, estimated that 70 to 80 homeless people live near the Home Depot.
Many of them, he said, will be caught in a “catch and release” cycle.
And for those ready to ask for help, there are challenges too. Synthetic drugs on the street require longer detox times than what’s available through most programs, Smiley said.
“The pills stick with them longer, and nobody’s set up for it,” he said.
Tien Lam, 45, is among those living in tents in the woods near the intersection of Airport and 99.
“We have friends,” Lam told a reporter, motioning to others gathered around him in the Wendy’s parking lot on a recent Wednesday afternoon. “We have food.”
He took a bite of a Bánh mì sandwich, from a Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall down the street. Lam said the cops know him by name. He has been homeless, in and out of jail, for a decade, he said.
Court records show most of his past felony and misdemeanor convictions are related to drugs. A deputy who arrested Lam in April 2020 reported that he was well known to law enforcement south of Everett.
At the time, he was charged with possession of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture or deliver, but was acquitted by a jury in May 2021, records show.
Lam said he’s tried to get off the streets. He has called 2-1-1, a hotline that connects people with food, shelter and other basic necessities. But Snohomish County is grappling with a shortage of emergency and low-income housing units.
And Lam hasn’t been able to shake his addiction.
The drugs make him feel warm, he said.
“It’s cold out here.”