To combat the surge in opioid-related overdoses plaguing the city, Seattle has approved a new drug law that allows police to arrest individuals publicly using or possessing drugs.
Mayor Bruce Harrell’s executive order, effective from October 20, provides law enforcement with greater authority to make arrests, while simultaneously urging a diversion-focused approach over incarceration.
Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz outlined the new law’s enforcement strategy as aiming to prioritize “harm reduction” and connect individuals with services.
However, according to Diaz, enforcement of the new law may present challenges considering the city’s understaffed jail system and other logistical issues pertaining to incarceration.
“We might not necessarily be able to book them,” Chief Diaz said. “The jail has staffing issues, and there’s challenges with that.”
Instead, the police chief confirmed that the department would shift its focus to rehabilitation instead of punitive measures.
According to Chief Diaz, the key to enforcing the policy is by identifying harm in public spaces, including schools, parks and transit centers.
When law enforcement identifies individuals causing harm, they are directed to take a two-pronged approach, involving arrest or diversion.
“We’re trying to be very mindful about how we go about this approach,” Diaz said.
Central to the approach is working collaboratively with Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which offers an alternative for low-level drug offenders and individuals in need of services.
Mayor Harrell’s executive order also introduces a “threat of harm assessment” to guide officers in enforcing the new ordinance, which aims to create a more equitable balance between treatment and diversion efforts.
This assessment will be conducted at the discretion of officers, allowing them to determine whether a drug user poses a threat to others or not.
“We are committed to learning lessons from the past, holding traffickers, dealers, and those causing the most harm accountable, and helping people access treatment and care through diversion services,” Harrell explained.
The executive order defines “harm” as the impact on others’ ability to use shared public spaces and identifies areas with a high likelihood of the presence of other community members where drug use affects public safety and security.
It is expected that Seattle’s new drug enforcement law will help address concerns about street disorder and overdoses, the latter of which has reached record-high numbers.
Indeed, Seattle’s King County Medical Examiner’s Office reported a record-breaking 847 fatal opioid overdoses this year, most of which involved fentanyl.
However, police anticipate that the law will place additional strain on the city’s law enforcement and treatment resources. For individuals grappling with addiction and homelessness in the city, these challenges continue to persist.
The Seattle Police Department will issue its own guidelines following Mayor Harrell’s executive order, as reported by Publicola.
The September city council vote to enact this law is a response to Seattle’s ongoing struggles with addiction, mental health and homelessness crises.