WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The addiction crisis in Sedgwick County directly impacts our criminal justice system. The district attorney has seen an increase in the number of criminal cases that involve meth.
In 2020, close to one in five criminal cases handled by the DA involved meth. That is up from just over one in ten in 2016.
Three men leading law enforcement in Wichita and Sedgwick County came to the KSN studios for a candid conversation about the opioid epidemic and the impact they see every day on the front lines — Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, Sheriff Jeff Easter and Drug Enforcement Administration Resident Agent in Charge Greg Anderson
“We’ve been fighting the war on drugs since like 1985,” Easter said. “I don’t think any of us in this room think we’re going to win it because we’re not. So we have to look at different ways of addressing, and this is an epidemic in itself.”
“Last calendar year in Kansas, there was about a 22% increase in overdose deaths,” Anderson said. “This is a significant change from what it was before. We see methamphetamines, like the sheriff said, in Kansas. However, we see more and more opioids, fentanyl and a lot of fake pharmaceuticals.”
“With COVID, the drug market changed a lot last year, and with addiction, it is a lot about what they can get their hands on,” Ramsay said. “We saw an increase in synthetics last year, opioids and, it’s a major concern because we see every day the damage it causes to family’s and people’s loved ones.”
But the impact spreads beyond the family. It is impacting the day-to-day jobs of almost everyone in law enforcement.
“Where we deal with it every day is inside the jail,” Easter said. “We have a mental health pod that houses about 50 people. It’s not big enough for all the issues.”
“It’s a significant part of our officers’ days,” Ramsay said. “Obviously, a lot of our crime is driven by drug addiction — our property crimes, a lot of our burglaries, a lot of our auto thefts. There is a direct nexus to illegal drugs and opiates and meth, and you name it.”
All three believe education is a significant component of solving the drug problem.
“The biggest thing that I see is the education piece, right now,” the sheriff said. “We’ve lost a generation to drug use, plain and simple. They’re in and out of jail all the time. They’re constantly being contacted by the chief. This next generation, we have got to educate them on what this stuff is about.”
“The education starts at home,” Anderson said. “Parents, you have to talk to your kids. Everyday situations are the right time to talk to them. So, talk to them about drug abuse and talk to them often about drug abuse.”
“Addicts get hooked on it through, you know, an injury,” Ramsay said. “A lot of people don’t understand the dangers associated with it. So, I think education has to be a big part of it as well as treatment. So if someone was to come to any one of us today and say, ‘Hey, you know, Gordon, we have, I have an opiate problem. Can I get, can you help me get into treatment?’, it would be at least six months if they didn’t have regular insurance to get them into treatment.”
“It’s not getting better yet,” Easter added. “The hope is that by, you know, all the other entities, the non-profits and stuff that deal with these issues — this is not just a law enforcement issue by no means.”
“We need to look at the big picture,” Ramsay agreed. “This is one of them that drive a lot of our police calls and our crime and our contact with people. And we know that when people are under the influence of drugs, it causes them to act differently, to make decisions they wouldn’t normally take. And our officers daily are dealing with people who are not in a good state of mind, have access to weapons, and it’s tough times right now, and this is what people need to consider when we talk about, ‘What do we need to do as a society to move forward, so we don’t have unnecessary deaths?’ It’s not just about police and the criminal justice system.”
We asked them if Kansas needs more resources to deal with the opioid crisis.
“Absolutely, we need more resources,” Anderson said. “And I think mental health plays a huge component for drug addiction. Many people are out there, they’re self-medicating. The sheriff and the chief have been innovators in trying to work with the community and the mental health community in Wichita to find programs to help with this problem and to put people together and link programs together. One mental health program may be really good at drug addiction, but in order to work on some underlying personality defects, another provider is really good at that.”
“If you take the politics out of it, I think we would get a lot further,” Easter said. “But when you throw in politics on everybody needs money for stuff, the social issues sometimes take the back seat, and that’s what’s been happening for quite some time with mental health and also with substance abuse.”
“We here today are the face of a lot of the problems with criminal justice,” the chief said. “And really, the people need to take a broader look at what feeds the issues with criminal justice, and drugs is one them. The lack of treatment options, the lack of education, the lack of prevention is all feeding into a lot of our issues that we’re dealing with today.”
A new law that takes effect July 1 hopes to change the cycle of those battling addiction. It will allow more Kansans accused of drug cases to seek treatment, supervision, and diversion, keeping a felony conviction off their record.
The Sedgwick County district attorney says it would only apply to possession cases to begin but could be expanded and wouldn’t apply to those with extensive criminal history or violence.
The hope is that it would help people and cost taxpayers far less in the long run.
“$30,000 a year is what it costs to keep someone incarcerated in the Department of Corrections,” District Attorney Marc Bennett said. “So, if you spend a grand on them or $2,500 even and they don’t go to the joint for that year, you just netted $28,000-ish.”
The law will help Sedgwick County expand the work happening in 14 drug courts across the state. Sedgwick County has operated a drug court since 2008.