Residents in the Sun Vista neighborhood in Sunlight Beach have been complaining to police about suspected drug and criminal activity in a nearby home for years.
On Wednesday evening, they sat down with law enforcement officials to talk about the issues it faces and discussed how to work towards resolving the problem.
This wasn’t a one-off event. According to Island County Sheriff Mark Brown, he sits down in these sort of meetings frequently with different communities. As he puts it, he “gets the sense” more and more similar meetings are taking place as a way to address suspected drug and criminal activity when the police have their hands tied.
“I go out to these meetings, I don’t know if I’d say regularly, but every couple of months,” Brown said. “These neighborhoods can be frustrated with a particular dwelling, but the issue is we can’t arrest at the request of the community. I hate the saying you can’t arrest yourself out of a problem, but it’s true in this situation.”
Brown sat down with Sun Vista residents at Bayview Hall on Wednesday alongside Sgt. Darren Crownover and Lt. Evan Tingstad to address the neighborhood’s concerns regarding the house. For a while, the residence has rubbed neighbors the wrong way due to frequent and suspicious visitors, late night activity and a hodgepodge of junk in the front yard. It has come to earn a reputation in the community as a suspected drug house, and has left inhabitants wondering why the situation continues, despite being convinced there is evidence of criminal activity.
The meeting was less about resolving every issue at hand, and more about how communities can take steps toward tackling the issue either alone or with the help of police.
Law enforcement assured the neighborhood they have an eye on the home, and have for some time. To them, it’s not as easy to make moves on a suspicious dwelling as many would think; there has to be probable cause and clear evidence rather than suspicion. They have to work within the system, which complicates things if suspicious activity occurs in a private residence. Typically in these situations, the homeowner is an older resident with a caregiver due to health complications such as dementia or a physical disability, and this house is no different.
“What you don’t want in any situation is an arrest that doesn’t have enough information to prosecute,” Brown said. “We try not to assume we know all the facts.”
“The thing is, these people have just as much of a right to privacy as you and I do,” Tingstad said.
This sort of meeting is not specific to Sun Vista. Brown says he’s attended gatherings in the Oak Harbor area, on Camano and in South End neighborhoods. As much time as they can take, he doesn’t see them as lost time. Rather, they’re part of the solution to limit criminal activity.
“I think the answer to these problems is to engage the communities and raise awareness,” Brown said. “That’s what was happening last night. We may not have resolved everything, but neighbors were talking about how to work together to keep their neighborhood safe.”
Having the discussion in the first place is the initial step towards a safer neighborhood, Brown suggested. When neighbors are on the same page, it often lets the suspicious household know eyes are watching — closely, he says. This can discourage criminal activity and put those in the home on alert. It’s possible this could ultimately push those taking advantage of the home out of the neighborhood, as they seek to shake off the extra attention.
Both Brown and Crownover added that engaging the homeowner can lead to resolutions, particularly if the situation involves an aging or ailing resident who has been taken advantage of by their caregivers or squatters. Establishing a relationship can sometimes help them “see the light,” as Crownover said.
“The sense I get as I go to more of these meetings is that communities that have conversations with and can relate to the people inside can reach a level of understanding,” Brown said. “They can see it as offering help that’s needed in that house.”
Although there was some visible frustration in the crowd, law enforcement and some in attendance agreed it was a productive meeting. For Sunlight Beach resident Bob Bowling, raising awareness about the issue and getting everyone on the same page was valuable. But for him, tightening the bond between neighbors was the most important takeaway.
“Of course not everything was resolved since it’ll have to take its course, but I felt the meeting brought the neighborhood closer together, and we can now work together more,” Bowling said. “I think neighborhoods should have these meetings as a way to spread awareness and bring communities together.”