Drug overdoses fall as mental health emergencies increase in Kittitas County

A 2023 local crime report wrap up


Carolina K. Smith

Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Omar Benitez, Staff Reporter

In an otherwise typical year for crime in Kittitas County, drug related crimes have fallen while mental health crises have increased. 

Overdoses and drug crimes:

Drugs, specifically fentanyl, have taken the lives of six people in 2021. Last year, there was only one reported overdose death in the county.

However, according to Ellensburg Police Department (EPD) Captain Dan Hansberry, reported use of Narcan has gone up, suggesting that drug use has not gone down like the reduction in overdoses may suggest.

“We know Narcan is being used privately,” Hansberry said. “It’s readily available to people, we know it’s being used in the community [and] we’re glad that the opportunity is out there for people to revive friends or loved ones that have overdosed, but it still is telling us that … substance use and overdose is still very much a concern.”

Although drug overdoses fell by over 83% last year, according to Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office Inspector Chris Whitsett, drug trafficking and distribution is still an issue they’ve been dealing with.  

“Just this morning our deputies intercepted a significant amount of drugs moving from one county to another county, through our county,” Whitsett said. “We’re impacted by drug trafficking or we’re impacted by drug use, and we’re impacted by crime that comes from drugs.”

Mental health crisis: 

According to Hansberry and Whitsett, the biggest challenge police in the county and Ellensburg are facing is a mental health crisis that often goes hand in hand with substance use.

“We’ve seen a steady rise in mental health calls,” Hansberry said. “2022 was our highest year overall and looking back all the way to 2015, for the past seven years, our mental health calls have more than doubled.”

Oftentimes, in small communities like Kittitas County, the responsibility falls on police to care for people going through mental health crises.

“We can be a part of the solution,” Hansberry said.  “It really takes community partners and community groups to participate in that to get them resources and actually help these people.”

Whitsett said due to lack of other resources, oftentimes, people find themselves in the county jail as a result of their crisis.

“What we need, as a county, is a much more robust mental health system,” Whitsett said. “We need a facility with a lot of beds for people who need help, we need a lot more mental health professionals that are capable, when it comes to taking care of people. In the absence of those, the jail becomes by far the biggest mental health institution in the entire county. And that’s not what it’s for, and it’s not a good place for those people, but you get stuck if there’s no place else.”

According to Hansberry, a long-term care facility in the county is what is needed to be able to properly address this issue and help those with mental health disorders.

Other crimes:

One of the biggest crime events in the county this year, according to Whitsett, was the arson at the ACX maintenance building and Ellensburg Racquet and Recreation Center on Dec. 2.

The arson caused an estimated $8 million in damages and resulted in the arrest of  24-year-old Ellensburg man Kyle Morgan for first-degree arson, Whitsett said.

According to Whitsett, carjackings did rise substantially in Washington in 2022, although there was no noticeable difference in Kittitas County and Ellensburg. 

Some crime trends that did see an increase were organized retail theft in some department stores, according to Hansberry. In response, EPD put officers in some department stores to help combat this.

There were no reported homicides in Kittitas County for 2022. Other crimes including assault and burglary saw no significant change, according to Whitsett. Traffic accidents and traffic infractions did see a slight increase, with that being mainly due to reduced COVID restrictions in 2022 compared to previous years.