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Spokane County Sheriff's Office Battles Methamphetamine Epidemic

In 2002, law enforcement in Spokane , WA uncovered a daunting reality: they were in the midst of a methamphetamine epidemic, and something needed to be done about it and fast. The Spokane County Sheriff's Office (SCSO) quickly answered the call. Through their collaborative efforts with the community, the county's anti-methamphetamine program eventually became one of the most successful in the state. Here's the story of how they made it happen.

Fighting Back

“We were in crisis mode over the epidemic here,” said Lt. Stephen Jones of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office (SCSO). After being informed about the numbers, Jones, along with his colleagues, felt a strong sense of urgency to take swift action because he knew the potential repercussions. “We knew that, al ong with the rise in drug activity, the rate of gang activity also goes up,” explained Diana Somerville, the Neighborhood Watch Coordinator for the SCSO. The SCSO was adamant that their county not become another statistic.

A program called S.C.O.P.E. (Sheriff Community Oriented Policing Effort) , in conjunction with the county's METH WATCH program, became instrumental partners in fighting the epidemic and ensuring that they would beat the odds. Modeled after a program in the state of Kansas that had been created to curtail drug lab activity, METH WATCH is similar to Neighborhood Watch in that it involves training, signage, and suspicious activity reporting all in an effort to make the theft or purchase of what are known as “precursor” ingredients, or ingredients typically associated with methamphetamines, more difficult. Stores that participate in the METH WATCH program display window stickers that identify them as participants and shelf stickers to identify precursor products, employ product management that limits the quantity of such products, place these products in high traffic areas, and provide surveillance on aisles containing precursor products.

“The S.C.O.P.E. program was able to assist in our community efforts to fight the methamphetamine epidemic in 2002 when it chose to become partners with the METH WATCH program,” explained Detective Dan Blashill. “Local SCOPE volunteers contacted and trained their local retail businesses about the terrible methamphetamine problem and how stores could identify and report suspicious purchases of precursor chemicals at their stores.”

Law enforcement has also taken measures to educate the community, at large, about methamphetamine labs and what to look for and about law changes to assist with over the counter medication controls. C ommunity members and METH WATCH volunteers have been provided training about proper procedures when they suspect activity related to methamphetamines. Along with the classes that are offered to the community, the SCSO provides a NW manual to participants. Within this manual is an informational section that contains information on as methamphetamine house awareness, precursor ingredients and pictures, reporting forms, signs of addiction, record keeping and activity log, reporting phone numbers, and a list of the most important information to provide to law enforcement.

Volunteers have also been trained to report and document all types of graffiti, which often signifies a rise in drug and gang activity. When graffiti is reported, S.C.O.P.E Volunteers document the graffiti, taking photos and recording specific information. This information is then forwarded to the deputy in charge of gang activity. S.C.O.P.E. stations keep copies of the information at their stations to assist in tracking this activity, and follow up with the owners to ensure the graffiti is cleaned up in a timely fashion.

The joint collaboration between the community and law enforcement proved favorable almost immediately. During 2002, the information that was obtained from local businesses resulted in 42 investigations that led to the discovery of methamphetamine labs in the county. And the partnership has continued to produce positive results. “Since April of this year, we have received almost 10,000 entries of cold pill sales from our store partners, we have already conducted five lab investigations that resulted in arrests, and we have been able to identify 30 potential targets from those lists, nine of whom are convicted felons with past drug violation arrests and three of whom are currently wanted.” And, according to Lt. Jones, “Because of education and citizen involvement, methamphetamine labs in our area are almost non existent.”

Though he admits the methamphetamine problem certainly still exists, mainly as a result of supplies being brought in from outside the county, he says that the work that has been done thus far has helped them to make great strides, even going so far as to prompt legal changes. This year, the state of Washington changed its cold pill rules and regulations to require businesses not only to record the identification of any person purchasing cold pills, but also to make the information available to local law enforcement. “It's the community service we provide, along with our community partners' assistance, that makes our program the most successful in our state,” said Lt. Rick Vanleuven.

Community Involvement

The methamphetamine epidemic is not the only issue law enforcement and community involvement have affected. To combat the multiple crime-related issues in the county, law enforcement works closely with community members via the county's extensive Neighborhood Watch network. Formed in 1979 as Block Watch, today's program is stronger than ever. “Since 1979, we have started 2041 NWs and currently have 1225 active watches in a population of roughly 245,000,” said Somerville, “Empowerment of neighborhoods through organization, education, and communication has always been the objective of the SCSO.” Through this neighborhood empowerment, the SCSO has enhanced community partnerships along the way. “We have achieved results that prove citizens within our neighborhoods feel an increased sense of community ownership, safety, and preparedness.”

This can be attributed, in part, to the wide range of presentations that are offered via Neighborhood Watch meetings, community events, and business meetings. Monthly educational seminars have focused on topics such as gang activity, identity theft, internet safety, domestic violence, crime scene investigations, sex crimes, traffic issues, and more. Neighborhood Watch booths are also featured at various community events, including town hall meetings, CERT training, preparedness planning events, homeowners' association meetings, church events, and more.

While each individual Neighborhood Watch is uniquely its own, planning and participating in its choice of area events, almost all participate in National Night Out, which gathers together representatives from the SCSO, local government, fire departments, and area agencies who visit neighborhood parties and communities throughout the county to celebrate.

This past March, the SCSO held its first, two-day Neighborhood Watch Crime Prevention Conference. “Each day, we offered 13 different classes to participants,” said Somerville . “The conference was such a success that we have already started plans for a conference to be held next March.”

In addition to Neighborhood Watch, the county's S.C.O.P.E. program has met many of the goals that fall under the National Neighborhood Watch program. Much like block captains, the majority of S.C.O.P.E. volunteers serve as leaders in their neighborhoods. Alongside the SCSO, they continue to strive towards a common goal of promoting public safety and preventing crime in their neighborhoods.

Benefits of Communication

This common goal would not have been reached without effective communication between law enforcement and residents. One of the SOCS's primary methods of communication, according to Somerville , is a quarterly newsletter. Each quarter, 20,000 newsletters are distributed to local S.C.O.P.E. stations, individual homes, local churches and businesses.

In addition, Somerville emails crime statistics maps on a monthly basis to any Neighborhood Watch requesting them. The SCSO also hosts a Neighborhood Watch database on its network that can be accessed by Somerville and the county's two crime prevention deputies. Somerville keeps copies of each of the Neighborhood Watches' maps and/or phone trees for reference. She says these can be a tremendous help if a Neighborhood Watch organizer moves and fails to arrange for a replacement. “By this simple communication with Neighborhood Watch members, I can open the door to them, and they realize we are there for them,” said Somerville .

Beyond written and electronic communication, law enforcement takes an active role in Neighborhood Watch meetings and events. “When Neighborhood Watch groups host gatherings and we are invited to visit them, the neighborhoods get to interact with their local law enforcement representatives that work in their neighborhoods,” explained Somerville . “The personal level of community outreach that we provide usually results in neighborhoods that are more willing to communicate with us, and this has actually led to better reporting of suspicious activity, problem traffic areas, drug houses, etc. Having extra eyes and ears in the community is a big help to law enforcement.”

Since the SCSO has tripled the number of Neighborhood Watch groups just in the past three years, Somerville says the primary focus will be maintaining the relationships that have already been established. “We plan to continue our collaborative w ork within our community to promote individual and neighborhood preparedness, better services, and accessibility to our residents,” said Sommerville.