Policing topic of Port Townsend, Jefferson County meeting

Body cams, drug laws among topics

PORT TOWNSEND — Body cameras, drug possession and George Floyd were just a few of the topics of a special meeting of local officials earlier this week.

Monday night — the eve of the first anniversary of Floyd’s murder — Jefferson County Sheriff Joe Nole, Port Townsend Police Chief Tom Olson, Mayor Michelle Sandoval, City Council members and all three Jefferson County commissioners gathered online because, as commissioner Kate Dean said, “it’s incumbent upon us all” to take “a long, hard look” at law enforcement’s protection of justice and dignity.

On the ground in Port Townsend, that includes body cameras, purchased by the Port Townsend police in 2019.

The cameras “have been a real win for our department,” increasing transparency, said City Manager John Mauro.

Then Sandoval noted Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies do not wear body cameras.

Nole responded that he’d looked into acquiring them, but the cost was “outside our price range,” so the sheriff instead purchased an X-ray machine for the jail, to apprehend drugs being smuggled in.

“I’m not averse to body cams at all,” Nole added.

“I certainly support body cams,” said Dean, adding that the county Board of Commissioners is interested in including them in the upcoming budget cycle.

Earlier this year, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office aligned with the Port Townsend Police Department by hiring a full-time mental health navigator, a counselor who responds to calls involving people suffering mental health crises.

Since March, Jon Walsch of MCS Counseling has been embedded with sheriff’s deputies; his four-days-per-week schedule is funded by a state grant that expires June 30. The department has applied for an additional year-long grant to start July 1.

Meanwhile, navigator Jud Haynes has been a part of the Port Townsend Police Department since April 2019. Now full time, he not only helps people struggling with mental health emergencies but also connects them with basic services, including food and shelter.

Haynes responded to 11 calls for service in March and 19 calls in April, according to Port Townsend Police Department data.

In an interview, Jefferson County Undersheriff Andy Pernsteiner said Walsch has responded to 23 calls so far this month. They weren’t all mental health crises; some involved drug abuse or anger issues, Pernsteiner said.

Walsch and Haynes work together by covering each other’s days off, the undersheriff added.

Jefferson County Prosecutor James Kennedy also attended Monday’s special meeting, taking questions on the state’s radical change in drug laws.

In a nutshell, Kennedy said, possession of a controlled substance was, until recently, a Class C felony. A new state law, signed May 13 by Gov. Jay Inslee, has reduced that to a misdemeanor.

Felony drug convictions may be voided “going back to the early ’70s,” Kennedy added.

The court system’s handling of drug cases, related property crimes, diverting offenders to treatment: There are now more questions than answers, Kennedy said.

That led to Port Townsend City Council member Ariel Speser broaching the subject of entheogens, aka psilocybin mushrooms and psychoactive plants.

In recent months, the Port Townsend Psychedelic Society has met with council members, county commissioners and the county Board of Health, seeking a resolution to decriminalize entheogens. Cities across the country, from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Oakland, Calif., have done so.

“Is there going to be a resolution passed?” Speser asked.

Dean, chair of the Board of Health, answered that it “is making some refinements to a resolution that was presented to us,” to be discussed at a future Board of Health meeting.

Kennedy added that he’s met with Psychedelic Society advocates to discuss their push for making psilocybin and other entheogens a low priority for prosecution.

“I tried to convey to them that they really already are,” he said. “It’s not a hot priority for us.”

Sandoval then brought up the idea of forming a citizen advisory board to examine social and racial issues — and how they intersect with law enforcement. She wondered aloud whether this could be a countywide board connecting residents, the police department and the sheriff’s office.

County Commissioner Heidi Eisenhour suggested “a monthly coffee with Joe and Tom,” the sheriff and chief of police, “with different folks,” rather than the same eight to 12 people on an advisory board.

The sheriff’s office has had a citizens’ committee since 2015, Nole said, to which Sandoval again stressed her reasons for wanting a new group: to reflect on racial justice and social inequity in Jefferson County.

“Perhaps you have a board, but that’s what we hope to focus on if we have a board,” she said.

With or without a formal committee, Nole said his department wants to hear more from the public — including complaints.

“I don’t want anybody to be afraid to call the police or the sheriff,” he said, adding his phone number, 360-385-3831, is on the department webpage, www.co.jefferson.wa.us/172/Sheriff.

“It’s really important we hear from the community,” Nole said.

________

Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladailynews.com.

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