Whidbey struggles with confronting opioid use

President Donald Trump announced this month the country’s opioid problem is now a “national emergency.”

The unofficial declaration was the latest salvo in America’s ongoing battle against heroin and over-the-counter prescription opiates such as Fentanyl and Oxycodone. Their increasing popularity — overdoses have quadrupled nationwide since 1999 — has been a plague for communities across the United States.

Island County isn’t immune to the problem. Police confirm that heroin use is on the rise, and many residents are reporting a more visible presence of drug houses. Yet solutions are complicated and public frustration has simmered. Some have declared enough is enough and begun taking matters into their own hands, abandoning older and more passive methods, such as neighborhood watch groups, for newer and more confrontational tools, particularly social media.

Others have resorted to good old fashioned vigilantism.

ACCORDING TO statistics from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, or WASPC, narcotics arrests in unincorporated Island County increased 18 percent from 2015 to 2016, while theft remained constant. While there was a slight increase in both crimes in Coupeville, there was a significant increase in Oak Harbor. Narcotics arrests spiked 162.5 percent and theft arrests rose 19.4 percent.

The City of Langley didn’t report statistics to the association.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown has and continues to maintain that it hasn’t reached the “epidemic” level on Whidbey. He points to the county’s crime statistics in comparison to neighboring counties.

Compared to nearby counties, the crime rate per 1,000 people in Island County remains lower. The rate of narcotics arrests is .03 per 1,000, compared to .8, 1.6 and 2.2 in Snohomish, Skagit and Grays Harbor counties respectively. Theft arrests come out to 5.8 per 1,000 compared to 9.6, 12.5 and 9.2 in Snohomish, Skagit and Grays Harbor counties respectively.

Statistics may not give a full picture of the problem. Brown and Detective Ed Wallace say the numbers have many variables when recorded by law enforcement. For example, Wallace says many narcotics arrests occur when people are pulled over in routine traffic stops. This can alter the way the incident is recorded in the crime incident database.

“There are so many variables involved with the data that I can’t give you certainty with the numbers,” Wallace said.

Furthermore, while national overdose statistics indicate a steady upward trend, crime data in Island County are less constant and can be misleading; they have risen and fallen repeatedly over the past decade and in some communities more than others.

According to the county’s interactive incident viewer map, the past two weeks have seen 15 drug-related incidents and 16 burglaries called in to Island County law enforcement.

Residents are divided on the issue. Some feel law enforcement has its hands tied and others are frustrated with the ongoing issue. Many are also scared, as a number of sources declined to speak on record. Others are doing something about it, albeit behind a veil of anonymity.

ALTHOUGH THE numbers appear to be small, some South Whidbey residents are risking personal safety and using vigilante and aggressive tactics to root out drug activity. One man, who wouldn’t identify himself, described himself as a “lone soldier” and a “total vigilante.” He claims to know where most, if not all, of the drug houses on the South End are through undercover work and knowing people who live near suspected drug houses.

He at times referred to “we,” suggesting there is at least one other vigilante.

In addition to tracking their moves, he says he writes letters to the houses letting his suspects know he’s watching, sometimes with photos of the suspected dealers attached. He claims even to have gone as far as slashing tires and destroying cars. For him, his work helps law enforcement when they have their hands tied.

“I rock them, and I’ve probably gotten six of them thrown into jail,” he said. “We don’t just talk about the problem online, we hunt them down and get them.”

Others, while not necessarily employing vigilante tactics, try to do their part to inform neighborhoods of locations in their areas where suspected drug activity is taking place. Langley resident John Norby is one of those people who tries to spread information as a heads-up. He’s also understanding of the difficulties law enforcement deals with in taking down the suspects.

“Community control is the only answer, I think,” Norby said.

OUTING SUSPECTED drug houses and criminals on social media is another tactic, one that has grown in popularity on Whidbey Island. The leading social media effort is the We the People of Whidbey Island Facebook page, formed in April 2016 after some island residents reached a boiling point with drug activity in their neighborhoods. The page has nearly 3,900 “likes.”

There are multiple page administrators, none of whom will give out their names for safety concerns. They post detailed information about suspected drug houses and criminal activity. The page names suspects, posts aerial Google Earth images of homes and photos of the suspects. The goal is to “shine a light on the areas law enforcement know about, but can’t do anything about.”

This approach isn’t trouble free. An unnamed administrator said the page has wrongly accused people “on a couple of occasions” in the past, and have been forced to remove posts. It’s brought the potential of legal trouble for the page administrators, as they’ve apparently been threatened with legal action.

“It absolutely can be dangerous and a slippery slope,” an administrator said. “We do have a lawyer that said he’d represent the page if it ever come to that.”

The administrator claims to have sources within the sheriff’s office who used to confirm intelligence; he clarified that deputies aren’t contacting administrators themselves or discussing details of ongoing investigations.

PROFESSIONALS WHO deal with addiction, drug activity and law have mixed opinions about the approach taken by the We the People of Whidbey Island Facebook page.

Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks says while he thinks social media is a good way for communities to share information, publishing personal details can cause legal trouble for page administrators and personal safety issues for those wrongly accused. He adds outing suspected criminals before they’re proven guilty in a court of law can be potentially dangerous, and possibly “chips away at people’s understanding of the American criminal justice system.”

Chief Criminal Deputy Rick Felici says the social media approach can be both a “help and a hindrance” to law enforcement, but he has concerns over the lack of regulation on the Facebook page. He recognizes the potential danger in what We the People of Whidbey Island does, but also acknowledges that spreading information can be good for community awareness.

For Skye Newkirk, behavioral health specialist with Island County Human Services, the use of social media to out suspected drug use doesn’t help addicts, rather it makes their situation worse. However, he acknowledged dealing with criminals is different, but that people could be wrongly accused.

Newkirk said “trial by social media” contributes to the shame felt by addicts. As someone who works directly with those afflicted with drug addiction and having been an organizer of the county’s new opioid outreach program, Newkirk says shame plays a large role in their problem.

ISLAND COUNTY Commissioner Helen Price Johnson says the county is taking steps to tackle addiction with increased support and resources, through programs such as the opioid outreach program. The goal is to keep addicts out of the revolving door that is the criminal justice system, she said.

As far as policing goes, law enforcement officials say more manpower is needed. Felici says a full-time drug enforcement unit is needed to tackle the issue appropriately, but it’s harder said that done. The sheriff’s office has 39 commissioned officers in all, but that includes the sheriff himself, who doesn’t do patrol and deputies who are contracted out to other agencies such as the Coupeville marshal.

The department once had a three-person vice squad before the recession but it was discontinued during the county’s hefty budget slashes in following years.

Financial resources are a matter of debate, however. Price Johnson says the sheriff’s office has more money than it’s had in years. In fact, the department has two unfilled deputy positions now.

“We’re back to the same budget allocation level the sheriff’s office had in 2008,” Price Johnson said. “I’m hoping to better understand why those positions aren’t filled.”

According to Felici, departments in other counties are struggling as well as budgets everywhere are bouncing back from the recession. In other words, there are a lot of openings and not enough candidates.

But, if the office gets another deputy position budget on top of the unfilled two, he’s committed to reforming a vice squad.