Downtown drug issues require new police emphasis

The OlympianJanuary 19, 2014 

During his routine patrol shift Oct 31st Olympia Police Officer Jeff Herbig walks the rail tracks near the Jefferson Street tunnel amongst discarded hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia found strewn along the line.

STEVE BLOOM — Staff photographer

The Olympia City Council seems more determined than ever to rescue the downtown core from urban decay and prevalent violent crime. At its annual retreat, the council discussed strategies to tackle these twin downtown issues and is wasting no time putting its plans into action.

This week, the council unanimously moved closer to utilizing the Community Renewal Area to improve downtown blighted properties. Last week, it met with the Thurston County Commission to address the epidemic of heroin addiction and discarded syringes.

It’s a sad but well-known fact that people addicted to dangerous drugs go downtown to buy and use them. As a result, a whole litany of drug-related crimes occur there, accompanied by frequent anti-social and violent behavior.

To reverse this trend, Olympia Police Chief Ron Roberts told The Olympian’s editorial board he has launched a number of new initiatives to tackle drug crimes and ultimately change the culture of what constitutes acceptable behavior in the downtown core.

We wholeheartedly support Roberts’ efforts, even though we know increased enforcement will not solve the problems of those who are addicted or suffer from mental illness. Fixing the problem downtown merely disperses it elsewhere.

There will be no satisfying solution for people damaged by negative life experiences until all levels of government and community activists muster the political will to provide adequate resources for treatment facilities and intensive case management.

But the level of drug-related crimes and threatening behavior in the downtown core has risen to a point that endangers the economic viability of small business and consequently the city center’s future.

Next month, the city’s alcohol impact area takes effect, prohibiting downtown businesses from selling single-shot, high-alcohol drinks. That should reduce public drunkenness downtown, which is presently the most frequent cause for arrest by Olympia police officers.

Roberts wants to take the next step and declare a 1,000-foot area around city-owned buildings as drug-free zones. If applied to all public facilities, the zones would encompass a good portion of the downtown core.

The drug-free zones would allow prosecutors to seek enhanced penalties on conviction and an exclusionary policy that would prohibit previous offenders from returning to that zone.

The OPD is teaming up with the Washington State Patrol, Thurston County Drug Task Force, the Sheriff’s Department, other city chiefs and the Department of Corrections to put a full-court press and disrupt the drug trade in the downtown core.

Thanks to Olympia voters who approved last year’s public safety levy, Roberts has added a second downtown daytime walking patrol officer and assigned an officer to the regional drug task force. Until now, Olympia has had no voice in how or where the task force applied its resources.

Roberts is also working with the homeless advocacy nonprofit Sidewalk to target the city’s top 10 utilizers of police time and jail beds, and direct them to more helpful housing and care programs. At present, those top 10 individuals cost the city about $340,000 per year.

The City Council and the OPD chief are headed in the right direction to revitalize downtown. We hope the Legislature and Congress will catch the city’s enthusiasm and restore funding this session for mental illness, alcohol and drug treatment programs.

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