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Snohomish County Sheriff's Department Unit Becomes 'Social Workers With Badges And Guns'

Ten years ago, Snohomish County was overwhelmed by an influx of black-market prescription opioids. Law enforcement reacted by arresting people and running them through the courts, but it wasn't enough.

Property crime was still high, jails were filling up and the scourge of addiction showed no signs of slowing down as people switched from pills to heroin. Leaders realized they needed to make a radical change and focus instead on prevention.

They created the "Office of Neighborhoods" unit in the county sheriff's department to address the ongoing problems. The goal is to prevent overdoses and drug-related crimes through outreach.

In Part Two of our series about how this "prevention approach" is changing people's lives, we meet the outreach team that is making a difference.

The "Office of Neighborhoods" unit is made up of deputies, city police officers and social workers. The team has a basic mission: Go where people are in need of mental health care or a bed in an inpatient drug treatment facility and offer a hand. The team is often out in the field, walking through homeless encampments, on a near-daily basis.

Credit Ariel Van Cleave / KNKX
Dep. Adam Malaby is one of the members of the "Office of Neighborhoods" team.

"I think this is, initially, how police work started out," Dep. Adam Malaby said. "You know, you're the problem-solver for the community. Unfortunately, crime rose and law enforcement as a whole had to take kind of a different tact to address some of that. And I think now, with addiction being the epidemic that it is, we're able to shift gears again and refocus on what matters in communities."

The shift has been a dramatic one. Social worker Lauren Rainbow is part of the team and explains the deputies are quickly able to establish a rapport with people living in encampments. She calls them "social workers with badges and guns."

"Sure, we certainly do encounter the initial kind of freeze and heightened anxiety, 'Oh my gosh, the cops are here.' At this point in the juncture, we've been doing this for a few years now. A lot of people are aware of us and what we're able to offer because we've probably helped out a lot of their friends," Rainbow said.

A typical day for this team can be busy. The unit could be taking someone to court, working to get another person a bed at a detox facility, or responding to patrol calls.

"And then you add into that all the plans that go wrong," Sgt. Ian Huri said. "We're working with a very limited amount of time during the day, but we're also working with a population that does not have the organizational skills that most of us do."

This approach has been working since it began in 2015. Leaders in the county expanded the program in 2017 by adding an east county unit in collaboration with the city of Monroe.

The sheriff's department has now added another unit in the northern side of Snohomish County. The latest agreement is with the cities of Marysville and Arlington.

This is the second in a two-part series about the "Office of Neighborhoods" unit. You can find the first part, about two women who found support in the unit, here.

Ariel first entered a public radio newsroom in 2004 while in school at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. It was love at first sight. After graduating from Bradley, she went on to earn a Master's degree in Public Affairs Reporting from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Ariel has lived in Indiana, Ohio and Alaska reporting on everything from salmon spawning to policy issues concerning education. She's been a host, a manager and now rides shotgun with Kirsten Kendrick as the Morning Edition producer at KNKX.