The City of Seward held an informational meeting on Thursday about drug addiction and crime in the Seward area, responding to direction from the City Council. 

The meeting, billed as a “public safety forum,” featured presentations from public safety and health workers, but did not include a discussion or question-and-answer portion, a detail that surprised some attendees. The city did take written questions, which it said would be answered and distributed for everyone to read.

The Seward Journal may have contributed to the confusion with a June 12 article which described the then-upcoming meeting as a “town hall to discuss crime and substance abuse.” The Journal wrote this description based on a discussion that took place at the City Council meeting that Monday.

The event organizer, City of Seward Executive Liaison GeNeil Flaherty, later told the Journal that she intentionally avoided the term “town hall” in her messaging about the event because of the implication that the event would feature open discussion.

Instead, the meeting brought a sequence of presenters – mostly health and public safety workers – who addressed crime and drug addiction from the point of view of their respective professions. 

“My day today consisted of the search and rescue in the morning, then going 70 miles up the highway to check on someone who called for assistance,” Sgt. Ben Endres of the Alaska State Troopers Seward Post told the crowd. “Then I got back for this meeting.”

The Seward Trooper Post is responsible for law enforcement in a vast area that includes dozens of miles of the Seward and Sterling Highways. The post is also responsible for coordinating search-and-rescue operations as far away as Eagle River, Endres said.

Distance is only one of the difficulties for the Alaska State Troopers.

“In the ten years I’ve been with the Troopers, we have been pretty much continually short-staffed,” he continued. The Seward Trooper Post will soon add a fourth Trooper, he said, which will bring the post up to full staffing.

Lt. Alan Nickell of the Seward Police Department connected the two topics of the public safety forum with an observation about an uptick in burglary reports inside the city limits, which he said had roughly doubled since 2017. The controversial Senate Bill 91, which some have blamed for an increase in property crime, passed in July of 2016.

“In almost every case, it was very clearly related to drug use,” Nickell said of burglary reports he examined ahead of his presentation.

Nickell also emphasized the role of witnesses in catching criminal suspects and the importance of individuals and communities taking responsibility for their own safety and that of their neighbors.

“When you call us, I would ask that people take a moment to calm down and take a look at what is going on,” he said. “The better information you can give us, the better we can serve you.”

Nickell reminded the audience to take note of distinguishing features on vehicles or people when reporting a crime or suspicious circumstances.

“There’s an odd thing that you might not had thought of – one thing that criminals don’t change is their shoes,” Nickell said. “If you see somebody running away and they’ve got bright red tennis shoes on, let us know. That will help.”

The administrators from Providence Seward Medical Center and the Seward Community Health Center provided a statistical look at the scale of Seward’s drug problem as seen in their establishments. 

Robert Rang, hospital administrator for Providence, said that the hospital emergency department saw roughly twice the number of visits for a drug overdose in 2018 as it did in the previous year. Counting only overdoses or psychotic episodes, the emergency department saw 22 visits in 2018 and has seen 12 so far in 2019, Rang said.

The emergency department sees far more alcohol-related visits, which held around 160 in both 2017 and 2018, according to numbers provided by Rang.

The Seward Community Health Center saw a similar number of patients with existing drug use disorder diagnoses, said Executive Director Craig Ambrosiani. The 15–20 patients a year that have that diagnosis make up a little less than one percent of the clinic’s patient base.

Those numbers are likely a very conservative estimate of the extent of substance abuse in Seward, judging by the remarks of Tommy Glanton, the behavioral health director at Seaview Community Services.

“I get asked this question a lot. How bad is the problem?” Glanton said. “It’s pretty significant. We see a large number of people, and that number continues to climb every year. This year we expect as many as 80 people to access intensive treatment (for substance abuse).”

Even that number is likely a lowball figure, Glanton said, since many people elect not to seek treatment at all. Glanton reported that a significant portion of respondents to last year’s Seward Health Needs Survey, conducted by Providence, said that stigma dissuaded them from getting help.

“Seventy-five percent said they didn’t seek treatment because they didn’t want people to know I had a problem,” Glanton said. “There is a cultural concept that says addiction is a moral failing: ‘Bad people do bad things and become addicts.’ We know that’s not true.”

Instead, Glanton said, “addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition,” and substance abuse often begins as a coping mechanism.

But “recovery is possible,” he said. “And often, the individuals out in the community committing these crimes have the possibility of combating this health issue.”