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Talking about crime and the community

Staff Reporter | October 21, 2022 1:07 AM

Rustler’s Roost was filled with law enforcement officers Thursday.

Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris and Hayden Mayor Scott Forssell invited people to a Morning Coffee Meetup at the Hayden restaurant to have conversations with the community.

Sheriff’s office personnel joined Norris and Forssell and answered questions on a range of topics, from the proposed Hayden police levy, increasing fentanyl abuse in the region, the Interstate 90 corridor, to current alerts on their radar.

Proposed law enforcement levy

Hayden, without its own police force, pays the sheriff's office to provide deputies to cover the city.

Hayden uses approximately $1.2 million in police coverage, but the city paid $412,000 to the sheriff’s office for that coverage in 2021. Hayden’s budget pays for up to four deputies, but they call in backup from throughout the county as necessary.

“The need is in Hayden,” Norris said. “If Hayden were properly policed, I wouldn't have issues in Athol, I wouldn’t have issues in Worley.”

That means county residents are subsidizing Hayden’s police usage for the balance of what isn’t covered under the city budget.

“It’s our responsibility to be fair to all taxpayers of Kootenai County,” Norris said. “I can’t always pull from Cougar Gulch, Worley, Harrison, Bayview or Athol to always service the citizens of Hayden.”

Deputies said they are watching Hayden grow into a much larger city, but seeing it still being perceived as a small town.

“The city of Hayden is no longer a rural town. It’s an urban town with urban problems,” Norris said. “We have the same problems that Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles have, but on a smaller scale.”

Hayden voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to increase their taxes to provide funding for additional deputies to cover their city.

Crime shifts: Meth to fentanyl

Until 2019, deputies felt like they were constantly up against methamphetamine abuses.

“In the sheriff's office at that time, everything was meth,” said Capt. Stu Miller, who oversees the Kootenai County Jail. “Everybody was manufacturing meth. Every door we knocked on there was somebody with a meth lab. So our perception was that meth labs were huge.”

The sheriff’s office received a grant to conduct door-to-door surveys on the perceptions of crime in the region, and the results were shocking, said Miller, who at the time, was a deputy assigned to Hayden.

He said they knocked on doors in different neighborhoods and asked people to take the survey and asked residents which crimes they saw as a priority.

“They said (traffic) speeding,” Miller said. “Because that’s what they saw. The good people never saw meth labs. They don’t think they’re living next to somebody who is selling meth, or crack or whatever.”

Now deputies feel like they’re seeing huge spikes in fentanyl use, but they’re not sure that the community understands that increase.

In 2019, deputies were first given Narcan, the brand name of the drug naloxone that will reverse an opioid overdose. Since then they’ve seen huge spikes in how frequently they have to use it.

“Right now with fentanyl, it’s like every sixth grader is getting their hands on it,” Miller said. “Not everybody knows that. We had two overdoses in the city of Post Falls, one kid was selling it to another kid in high school.”

That transaction took place on a campus in front of Lt. Ryan Higgins’ son.

“We see fentanyl and we respond to it on a daily basis on patrol,” said Lt. Mark Ellis. “None of those are reported, even to us for a lot of it, because it’s a HIPAA violation. They’re not dying, so the hospitals don’t really release that information.”

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, is a federal privacy law protecting patients' health information from being disclosed without their consent or knowledge.

Deputies say they’re now running into Narcan parties. At a Narcan party people get as high as they can with a designated attendee who will have Narcan on site “to bring people back” if they begin to overdose.

Data to track fentanyl use tends to be retroactive, but deputies are seeing immediate shifts in what they are policing right now.

“I can tell you one year ago, our narcotic detectives were finding methamphetamine,” Norris said. “I’d say that’s now 90% to 95% fentanyl.”

The ‘High-Den’ I-90 corridor

“The drug corridor, it goes north from the Mexico border into Tri-cities distribution centers, and it comes through Spokane onto Interstate 90, then going all the way back to Minnesota,” Ellis said. “So drug prices are $2 in Spokane, $8 here and $12 in Montana. It’s called the High-Den, High Density drug trafficking corridor.”

The high density corridor used to be patrolled by deputies in the sheriff’s department. They seized pounds of drugs going east, and up to millions of dollars going west annually.

“And at that time, it’s estimated that we were grabbing 0.01% of all the drugs,” Ellis said. “The cartel figures they just send enough through, they don’t care about that loss.”

Manufacturing begins in South America, and cartels move huge amounts of fentanyl through the corridor, largely undetected.

DEA agents and Idaho State Police still patrol the corridor, but county police no longer have the same presence on the interstate. Norris said seizures from the corridor are “the bread and butter” for ISP.

“We were staffing deputies on I-90 and they were full-time pulling in probably several truckloads of drugs a week,” Ellis said. “Now we focus on the dealers in Kootenai County. Those are the only ones that we can focus on.”

With Spokane being a checkpoint and distribution center for moving drugs, officers in Kootenai County have no access to the source to control the largest dealers, or real weight.

“What has impacted our community are low-level dealers that are selling to kids in our community,” Ellis said. “The best thing is to put a fear of God into them. So that every time they sling a pill, they have something to be afraid of.”

Updating laws

Sheriff’s office personnel are beginning to collaborate with Hayden City Council members to ensure the city’s laws adequately support their police work. As the population in Hayden increases, deputies are finding there can be too few laws to enable them to protect the community. For example, until recently, Hayden did not have a public intoxication law written into its city code.

Hayden has since modeled a public intoxication law from a Coeur d’Alene city code to empower deputies to make arrests as a need for that arose.

The sheriff’s office understands that Idahoans value fewer laws and regulations, but that needs to be balanced with the community’s needs.

“We want to maintain that quality of life here in Hayden,” Norris said.

The city council is considering new laws as deputies give them feedback on their capabilities.

Crime series

Deputies have seen a few local surges in crime series, and expect to see more, especially as gas prices increase.

A crime series is a phenomenon where a surge or wave of crime will take place. For example, there might be one burglary in an area, followed by three more in the following week.

As a specific example, three vehicles were recently vandalized in one night at Texas Roadhouse. Holes were punched in the vehicles’ gas tanks.

Deputies are also seeing surges in diesel fuel being stolen, either siphoned or tanks punctured.

“There are specific needs of crime series events where we need to focus,” Norris said.

The Morning Coffee Meetup with sheriff’s deputies and staff was an opportunity for the deputies, with ranging roles and experience, to voice the most prevalent issues they’re seeing.

Norris said the sheriff’s office had a busy year.

“We had more murderers, officer-involved shootings, running gun battles and vehicle pursuits,” Norris said. “We had the most reported incidents on record.”

Also in attendance at the meetup were Undersheriff Brett Nelson and Deputy Nick Franssen.

This was a second morning meetup, and one more is scheduled for 9 a.m., Oct. 24 at the Kaffe Meister, a Hayden coffee shop.