Selah police seize drugs, encourage suspects to seek treatment

SELAH, Wash. — The Selah Police Department hasn’t made any drug possession arrests since last summer, when a new law went into effect that gives people found with illegal narcotics two chances to get treatment before they’re arrested.

“We’re not going to turn a blind eye to drug possession,” Selah Police Chief Dan Christman said. “We’re just handling the people in a little different manner.”

In February 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled its previous drug possession law was unconstitutional. Lawmakers soon approved an overhaul of that law with Senate Bill 5476, which was signed into law in May.

The new law makes simple possession of a controlled substance a gross misdemeanor instead of a felony. It also requires police officers to provide information on treatment resources to a person twice before arresting them or referring them for prosecution.

“Alternatives to arrest must now be offered for the first two situations in which there is probable cause to arrest for simple possession,” a letter from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said. 

Christman said his officers haven’t made any drug possession arrests since the law went into effect because they haven’t encountered anyone who has more than one previous incident recorded.

READ: Selah police buy body cameras to comply with new law

Shortly after the law went into effect, Christman said Yakima County law enforcement agencies had to create a system that allowed them to keep track of how many times a person was contacted by police across jurisdictions for drug possession.

However, Christman said they do not have a system in place to track whether the new approach is helping get more people into treatment programs.

“You can have someone that we contact today, we get input into services and we don’t know if they’ve completed the services,” Christman said.

Christman said some community members are likely to be frustrated when they call to report drug activity in their neighborhood and see police respond to the scene, but not make an arrest.

“Ultimately, unless they’ve had multiple contacts, they’re going to walk away from those interactions after we’ve gotten the information and  seized the drugs,” Christman said. “That’s probably not the outcome that our community has come to believe is going to happen.”

Christman said it’s important for community members to understand that the officers are still getting drugs off the streets and hopefully, getting help to the people who need it.

While officers have had to adjust to the new approach to drug possession cases, Christman said he’s hopeful that it will be a benefit to the whole community in the long run.

“I choose to look at Senate Bill 5476 and the Blake decision as an opportunity for us to find those folks who do really want to make their life better, beat an addiction and then come back out and resume normal life in the community,” Christman said.

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