Law enforcement agencies across Northwest Florida were kept busy over 2017.

While bigger crimes and significant arrests made headlines, deputies responded to tens of thousands of calls from Santa Rosa to Walton counties. Many of them, according to law enforcement leaders, stemmed from the rising opioid epidemic.

Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson said everything from traffic accidents to car burglaries could be traced back in one way or another to addiction issues. He added that he believed drug problems and mental health issues often went hand-in-hand.

“The twin issues of addiction and mental health are pretty significant drivers (of crime),” he said. “And we still see the inability of some places to provide proper mental health counseling … those issues result in negative interaction with law enforcement from a standpoint of disturbances, calls for service based on crises, and self-medicating.”

Aside from drug calls, law enforcement agencies responded to a number of property, violent and non-violent crimes in 2017. The Daily News spoke with law enforcement officials and analyzed data provided by local agencies to provide a snapshot of crime on the Emerald Coast last year.

Opioid use up everywhere 

In Walton County, Adkinson said opioid use contributed to many crimes in and around the area over the course of last year.

“Unfortunately, opioids have continued to have a very significant impact on citizens here not only in Walton County but in Florida at large,” Adkinson said. “Whether that’s anything from crime-related use of opioids to suicide to overdoses, it has definitely had an impact on quality of life for a lot of our citizens here, certainly.”

Niceville Police Chief David Popwell said opioid abuse, mostly through heroin and fentanyl, was the single biggest issue his department faced in 2017 as well.

The NPD saw a 67 percent increase in drug arrests in 2017, Popwell said, going from 89 drug arrests in 2016 to 149 in 2017.

“That is something we have never seen to this extent,” he said. “We had over 20 overdoses last year, some fatal, but a lot brought back to life, but we’ve just never seen an influx like this before.”

Popwell attributed the increase in drug arrests in part to the department’s acquisition of a drug sniffing dog. He said in 2018 he hopes to get another drug dog to continue to battle what he expects will be another consecutive year of skyrocketing opioid use.

In Fort Walton Beach, Police Chief Ed Ryan and Capt. Tracy Hart said opioids, and specifically “the need for people to get their fix,” contributed to increases in crimes over several categories in 2017.

“Those folks needing to find money feed their addiction, or get those quick easy scores, that’s where we saw a lot” of upticks in crime, Ryan said. “We’ve seen a significant increase in our overdose calls, and I would say (opioids) are a major contributor to some of our property crimes.”

Maj. Ken LaPee, Operations Bureau Chief for the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, said his department saw a 55 percent increase in felony narcotics arrests from 2016 to 2017.

LaPee said the department knew it couldn’t “arrest (its) way out of the problem,” but said drug arrests were important in combating crime.

“Anecdotally, we know that addiction is a causal factor in many different crime categories,” he said in an email to the Daily News. “Once an addict has consumed their resources on their substance of choice, theft, fraud and burglary are frequently a method of obtaining quick cash.

“Most categories of criminal conduct have some relation to the use of controlled substances,” he added.

Property and non-violent crimes

Across the region, while drug crimes seemed to see an uptick across the board, the numbers of property, violent and non-violent crimes differed between each agency, according to data provided to the Daily News.

In Walton County, car burglaries went down more than 35 percent, something Adkinson attributed to the arrests of “key individuals” who were committing most of the burglaries.

“If I’d have had 5 percent reduction in car burglaries, I would have been happy,” Adkinson said. “But we had a 30-plus percent reduction in over three categories, that is massive.”

Property crimes took up more law enforcement resources than violent crimes in Fort Walton Beach, according to Ryan and Hart.

“The two areas that hit us hard in 2017 were stolen cars and … burglary of non-residential places, like businesses,” Ryan said, adding he saw an uptick of 13 more non-residential burglaries and 16 more stolen vehicles in 2017 than in 2016.

He said stolen vehicle crimes began increasing in October 2017, when people began heating cars up in their driveways as temperatures dropped and leaving them vulnerable to thieves.

Crimes across the board were up in Niceville, including domestic violence, burglary and drug violations, according to statistics provided by the Niceville Police Department. Aggravated assaults were the notable exception, with only six cases reported in 2017, compared to 20 in 2016. No homicides were reported in Niceville in 2017, compared to one homicide in 2016.

Walton County reported two homicides in 2017, Okaloosa County reported four and Fort Walton Beach reported one.

In Crestview, robberies went down from 19 reported cases in 2016 to nine reported cases in 2017, while total violent crimes (excluding manslaughter) rose about 8 percent. Four more aggravated assault cases were reported in 2017 than 2016. There were no homicides reported in Crestview in 2017, according to statistics provided by the Crestview Police Department, while there were three in 2016.

“Overall, we're pleased to see that crime in Crestview continues to drop in many categories, including murder, sex offenses, robbery and simple assaults,” CPD spokesman Brian Hughes said in an email to the Daily News. “Larceny was also down in 2017. Overall, non-violent crimes and total offenses were both down, even as Crestview's population continues to grow.”