Commentary: Handcuffs and jail cells won’t solve opioid crisis

It’s more humane — and cost-effective — if we connect those with addictions to treatment and services.

Editor’s note: The is the second in a weekly series of commentaries from different perspectives regarding the response to the opioid crisis in Snohomish County.

By Ty Trenary

Back when I was working in patrol, heroin and the misuse of prescription opioids began creeping into Snohomish County communities. I believed (like so many of my fellow law enforcement officers) that addicts and low-level offenders needed to be taken off the streets and thrown in jail. I know that many in the county still share this sentiment, based on the comments posted on Sheriff’s Office social media accounts:

“Arrest them. If they are shooting up they are criminals.”

“Let the junkies die. … Slowly weed them out which will cut down the homeless numbers.”

“Stop spending tax money on helping these worthless drug addicts!!”

It seemed clear that we just needed to focus our efforts on tracking down the source (dealers) and removing offenders from the community.

That was more than 10 years ago. Not only do we still have people using heroin and abusing prescription drugs, the problem has gotten worse. In 2006, opioid-related drug cases made up 12.5 percent of the total caseload statewide. In 2016, it was over 35 percent. That means over a third of all law enforcement drug cases in Washington state, opioids (primarily heroin) are the prominent drug. More shocking still is that the number of opioid-related deaths in Snohomish County is more than two and a half times the number of motor vehicle fatalities for the past six years; 635 opioid deaths compared to 239 traffic deaths, 2011 through 2016.

When I took the oath to serve as your sheriff, I also took on the responsibility of overseeing one of the largest jails in the state. As I examined the impacts heroin was making on jail operations and the inmate population — many of them brought there by patrol, just like I used to do — I began to see a more complete picture of the opioid crisis.

We looked at individuals who were arrested most frequently in the last few years for non-violent offenses and found that 85 percent tested positive for opioids. The top three offenders were in their 30s with more than 40 arrests in the past 10 years. In the last half of this month, more than 40 percent of all inmates booked in the jail were put on opioid or heroin withdrawal watch.

Clearly, arresting these individuals had done nothing to cure their addiction or curb their criminal behavior. And this approach was costing local communities millions of dollars every year. I’ve since learned that the solutions to the opioid crisis are as complex as the problem, but it’s clear that law enforcement alone will never solve the problem with just a set of handcuffs and a trip to jail.

It was time to start thinking outside of the box and to partner with other agencies and jurisdictions that were also struggling with this crisis.

We created the Office of Neighborhoods, a team of deputies and social workers from Human Services to identify, locate and connect with homeless and vulnerable populations in our county. Their goal is to foster long-term relationships and break the cycle of homelessness. The first team deployed in south Snohomish County in 2015 and we have since partnered with police departments from Monroe, Marysville and Arlington to create teams to serve east and north county communities. Last year, the Office of Neighborhoods was able to provide services to more than 110 people, which includes securing housing for 75.

In partnership with the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force, Human Services, Code Enforcement, the Fire Marshal, Public Works, as well as Neighborhood Watch and community groups, we prioritized investigating abandoned residences and homeless encampments, also known as nuisance properties. These properties negatively affect the quality of life in our county’s neighborhoods and are often home to crime, drug use, noise, rodents or other pests, odors and unwanted vehicle and foot traffic at all hours of the day or night. To date, this team has opened more than 290 cases and are currently investigating more than 100 properties.

In the jail, our medical staff partnered with a local provider to enroll inmates into medication-assisted treatment options prior to their release. To compliment that service, medication-assisted detox is now being offered to inmates who have heroin or other opioid addictions within the first five days of being booked.

Later this year, the county will open the Snohomish County Diversion Center. This short-term, residential program is for the county’s homeless population, who are addicted to drugs (primarily opioids) and are struggling with untreated mental health needs and/or committing low-level crimes to live and support their addiction.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen the results first hand. We are getting people off the street, into treatment and recovery, and finding that a year or more later they have jobs, housing and are re-connecting with their families and community. We are ridding neighborhoods of the low-level crime and drug use that accompanies abandoned properties and homeless encampments. These solutions are closing the revolving door to those who keep cycling through the criminal justice system and social services. They are also a more effective and efficient use of taxpayer dollars.

The opioid epidemic is not just a law enforcement problem. It is not just a public health problem. It is a community problem. It is a problem that we need to fight together.

Sheriff Ty Trenary leads the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, where he has worked for 20 years.

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