Pioneering Snohomish County crime-fighting program expanding to Marysville, Arlington

MARYSVILLE, Wash. -- The vicious cycle of drugs, crime and homelessness is not a big city problem anymore.

Places like Snohomish County, which is a complex blend of urban and rural, have been struggling with how to to deal with these issues. They're expanding a pioneering program that takes a different look at crime and how to fight it.

"Police department! Embedded social worker unit!" officer Mike Buelle yells as he approaches a homeless encampment.

It might look like the middle of the forest, but the silence here is punctured by the sound of nail guns being used to build new three-story apartment buildings just a few hundred feet away.

"Hi, I'm Mike. This is Ken," Buelle says when he comes upon an occupied tent covered in a brown tarp on this rainy afternoon. "What we do is provide service to get people off the streets, out of camps and get them into rehab."

The trash and needles and homeless camp on this private piece of property are the symptoms behind the problem. Buelle is paired with social workers for what Snohomish County calls the "Office of Neighborhoods."

This is the second expansion of the program, which started in 2015 in the southern part of Snohomish County. An eastern division began in 2017.

"If you told me 20 years ago that my partner in a patrol car would be a social worker, I would have laughed at you," says Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary. "But quite frankly, the success that we have had has been tremendous."

The Snohomish County Sheriff's Office announced Thursday their newest partnerships with the cities of Marysville and Arlington.

"We are now working as if there's no jurisdictional boundaries in our area," says Arlington Mayor Barbara Tolbert. "This is about the fabric of the community and taking us off the hamster wheel that our community knows is opioid addiction."

Officials say these homeless camps in northern Snohomish County -- and nuisance properties that police are called to multiple times a year -- are the result of the opioid crisis. They say treating this as a criminal issue just doesn't work; they say it's a medical issue and needs to be handled as such.

"I've been really upfront about this is a public health issue," says Trenary.

The money for this program comes from a variety of sources. For the sheriff's office, it meant shutting down existing programs that just weren't as effective.

The funding for social workers come from the new 1/10th of a cent sales tax in Snohomish County. The sheriff says he thinks this will be a recipe for success for everyone.

"This is about trying to help people who need help and holding those people accountablethat want to victimize their community," says Trenary. "If we can do both through this program, it's cheaper and it's safer."

Another part of the Office of Neighborhoods will target problem homes in an area. The county gives law enforcement more tools to address nuisance homes that officials say are bringing crime and drugs into Snohomish County communities. With the new law, the owners of homes or properties where law enforcement has to come repeatedly during a year could face fines and other penalties.

"While we are focused on helping those struggling with addiction," says Snohomish County Council Member Nate Nehring, "we will absolutely not tolerate, and we will certainly not enable, a lifesytle of heroin and opioid abuse, of committing property crimes and of destroying neighborhoods in our communities."