PORT ANGELES — Law enforcement in the 21st century is about a lot more than carrying a gun, Port Angeles Police Chief Brian Smith said Tuesday.
That different focus, he said, might be contributing to a downward trend of property crimes in Port Angeles that Smith said was 13.6 percent lower for the first nearly four months of 2017 compared to 2016.
It’s also why his department is seeking federal grant funding to hire “a police social worker, if you will,” Smith told 28 people at the Port Angeles Business Association weekly breakfast meeting.
The new hire would help police address drug problems and homelessness in the city’s population in a way that does not include putting people behind bars if they are not committing crimes — and instead routes them to social services agencies and follow-through with further monitoring.
Smith said a staffer from the Port Angeles-based homeless services agency Serenity House of Clallam County partnered with a police officer last summer, walking through areas where they were likely to encounter the homeless.
“We’re on the hunt for grant money to get a position,” he said. “It’s a challenge for government. We don’t have unlimited resources.”
Bret McGuire, a superintendent at Lakeside Industries, asked Smith how the department responds to a complaint about possible drug activity occurring in public.
It’s not all that unusual for officers to respond — for example, to potential drug activity occurring in a parked car — by saying to the occupant, “What can we do to get you some help?” Smith said.
“Those conversations can go a couple of ways,” Smith added.
“We have a limited ability to initiate a consent search, like you see on TV.”
It goes along with a “soft handoff” approach of working with social services agencies to address drug addiction that can easily morph into criminal behavior unless it’s addressed as a medical problem to begin with, Smith said.
“There’s no property crime that we can think of that doesn’t have an addiction component to it,” Smith said.
Smith credited Angie Meiner Gooding of Port Angeles Citizen Action Network with bringing to the police department’s attention the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative in January 2016, which helped change the department’s thinking.
The Clallam Law Enforcement Action Network is a local version of the national program.
“When someone says, ‘I’m a heroin user,’ our officers are thinking, ‘What help can we get them right now?’ ” Smith said.
“If you look at it like a medical problem, you can make some progress.
“If you look at it like an attitude problem, you are going to be stuck with that problem forever.”
Needle exchange programs have little to do with stopping drug use, Smith added.
“The purpose is to stop the spread of disease, not stopping the problem,” he said.
If someone calls the police and asks for help and turns over a small amount of heroin, the drug will be put into property evidence, the person will be given help and the person likely will not be prosecuted, he said.
Smith said property crimes such as the car prowls, break-ins and burglaries that are drug users’ means to an addictive end are “trending down,” as are spontaneous car thefts.
From Jan. 1 to April 25 this year, there were 386 property crimes in Port Angeles compared to 447 for the same period in 2016, Smith said in a later interview.
“We don’t know all the reasons,” he said.
“It could be all the things that are being done, outreach to businesses, and we are probably seeing some results of outreach and some [reduced] heroin addiction issues.”
The department also has aggressively gotten the word out on trespass control that can be initiated by property owners, especially entrepreneurs who control their business space by notifying the police, he said.
Police got the word out last year that business owners could control loitering on their property by posting no-trespass signs.
“If [trespassers] continue to show up, we can take action that tends to reduce crime, reduces property crime and theft,” Smith said.
But statistics are not helpful if a person is a victim, he added.
“If you are a victim, and I tell you the trend is down, it doesn’t really mean anything to you,” he said.
Residents can go to www.crimereports.com for information on neighborhoods where crime has been reported in Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@ peninsuladailynews.com.