From 2016 to mid-March this year, Fort Walton Beach Police made 69 arrests for possession of heroin, 24 arrests for possession of hydrocodone, 14 arrests for possession of oxycodone and 10 arrests for possession of morphine.

City police also investigated three opioid-caused deaths in 2016 and four last year, FWB spokeswoman Jo Soria said.

Much of the opioids problem locally stems from people getting hurt in car accidents or being injured on the job or elsewhere, said Police Chief Ed Ryan, who began serving as chief in July 2016 and has more than 31 years of law enforcement experience.

"They go see a doctor and the doctor prescribes a strong opioid pain medication, and they're highly addictive," Ryan said. "When the individual becomes addicted to it, it grabs them. It's like a monster. It grabs them and pulls them in, and when they get their supply cut off because the doctor doesn't prescribe it anymore, the monster still has a hold of them. And they're having to find a way to feed that monster, to feed that addiction, to feed that illness. So they turn to the illicit side of the street."

Echoing local government, judicial system and jail officials, Ryan said the opioids problem locally knows no demographic boundaries. But the fight to defeat it is a winnable one, he said.


Fighting the beast

Fort Walton Beach officials finalized a partnership in February with the Bridgeway Center Inc. psychological healthcare organization that aims to help people receive behavioral health services once they're released by city police officers.

Before the partnership began, police had only one real option when dealing with a person who has mental health and/or substance abuse issues, Ryan said in a recent memo to City Manager Michael Beedie.

"The officer makes an assessment to determine if the client is a danger to themselves or others, as it pertains to a mental illness issue, and if so, transports this person to the Fort Walton Beach Medical Center under a Baker Act," Ryan said in the memo. "In the case of substance abuse violations, the only viable option is incarceration."

He said Bridgeway recently was awarded a grant that will increase its staff by three employees. The grant will allow the center to deploy staff between 8 a.m. to midnight seven days a week to provide on-scene consultation for and linkage to appropriate levels of behavioral healthcare for people experiencing mental health and/or substance abuse issues.

In those scenarios, police will request consultation from Bridgeway's Emergency Mobile Access Team, which will arrive on scene within 30 minutes of the request, Ryan said in the memo.

City officials are seeking state funding to open a "central receiving facility," similar to the diversion center that Okaloosa County officials would like to build next to the county jail in Crestview.

One of the main goals of such centers is to stabilize people during mental health and/or substance abuse-related crises that may otherwise result in low-level criminal charges.

The city's partnership with Bridgeway is a great way to keep such offenders out of jail and is a gateway to making the central receiving facility happen, Ryan said at a recent meeting.

How people became addicts is immaterial, he said.

"How do we get them back (from addiction)?" he said. "One of the things you see, especially in a large military community like ours, is we have a lot of PTSD (cases). They're becoming addicted to opioids and other drugs, and they too have to be able to feed that beast.

"It doesn't discriminate against socio-economic status. It doesn't matter if you're a doctor or a lawyer, or if you're unemployed in the carpentry industry. You're susceptible and victim to the same thing as anybody else."

Public and private organizations are fighting a constant battle to find funding to provide treatment to people who suffer with mental illness and/or substance abuse, the chief said.

"We can Baker Act them and Marchman Act them, but we have to go deeper," Ryan said. "We have to get long-term treatment, and I think that's where the Bridgeway Center and the Police Department and the Emergency Mobile Access Team are going to fill that gap. Hospitals do a fantastic job, but think about the magnitude of their workload. They have minimal beds for treating those with mental health and substance abuse issues."

Those issues must be viewed more as illnesses and diseases, he said.

"I'm not taking away from the criminal aspect of this," Ryan said. "But it goes deeper than locking them up. We have to find a better way to use our dollars more effectively and treat the individuals, treat the person."

Drug sources

Addicts often commit "nuisance crimes" such as breaking into cars and homes and shoplifting from stores, then selling their stolen items, so they can fund their addictions, Ryan said.

Drug users have an "underground network" that is spread by word of mouth and supplies them with their illegal drugs, he said.

Most of the heroin in Florida and the rest of the United States comes through the Mexican border or through South Florida, said Lt. David Allen, a member of the Special Investigations Section of the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office.

While the OCSO's patrol division and Street Crimes Unit come across drugs on a daily basis, the Special Investigations Section specifically targets drug dealers, said Allen, who has worked for the Sheriff's Office since 2005.

"A priority has been placed on those that distribute heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine because of the amount of overdose deaths related to the use," Allen said in an email.

The Sheriff’s Office reported a total of 25 deaths last year from drug overdoses, including prescription drug overdoses.

Allen said that after heroin is grown and processed in South American countries, it is distributed to the Mexican cartels that handle transportation and distribution into the U.S.

Once heroin enters the U.S., it is transported to "source cities" such as Atlanta, New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, Allen said.

Dealers who sell prescription medications obtain them through methods such as selling their own valid prescriptions, prescription thefts or "doctor shopping," and many opiate addicts commit crimes such as burglaries, thefts, robberies, prostitution and fraud to support their habit, he said.

From 2014-16, OCSO saw a 386 percent increase in heroin- and fentanyl-related arrests. Allen said there are two reasons why the local area has seen an increase in the distribution of fentanyl: It is sold to users as a substitute when a heroin supply runs low, and it can be purchased online by dealers or users.

"The fentanyl primarily comes from Mexico or Asian countries," he said. "In 2017, we saw an increase in fentanyl being sold after 'Operation Shady Lane,' which targeted a local heroin drug trafficking organization. The supply for heroin was low but because the demand was still there the dealers began distributing fentanyl to users."

While not overlooking its criminal aspect, Ryan said the overall opioid crisis is a winnable battle.

"The more we become linked with the mental health community and the substance abuse community, the more that we can work together treating the issues," he said. "We can't go down separate paths anymore, trying to get to the same finish line. We've got to run this race as a group and as a team, and I think that is what will make us successful."