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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kootenai County sheriff’s office takes issue with Washington laws, criminals; sheriff says, ‘I am not a white nationalist’

People pack a room at the Kootenai County Office of Emergency Management on Thursday night to listen to sheriff’s office officials talk about active shooter protocols, the rise in fentanyl and other public safety topics.  (Garrett Cabeza / The Spokesman-Review)

A Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office town hall on Thursday night saw officials reiterate earlier claims that Washington’s police reform laws are wreaking havoc on neighboring North Idaho, while the sheriff ended up defending himself over the aftermath of the arrest of 31 white nationalists outside a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene.

The remarks were made to a crowd of well over 100 attendees to the county’s Office of Emergency Management in Hayden.

Lt. Mark Ellis said the Washington state Legislature’s drug possession law that passed last year is causing problems.

Law enforcement officers now offer a referral to drug treatment services to those in possession of a controlled substance, including methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and fentanyl. If officers provided referrals on more than two occasions to a person, they can issue the individual a citation.

“I find this troubling, because drugs do correlate to a lot of our crime we have around here right now,” Ellis said.

Ellis also expressed opposition to Washington’s law that bars high-speed pursuits except in limited circumstances. Officers must have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver is impaired, or the higher standard of probable cause to believe they’re an escaped felon or have committed a violent crime or sex crime.

Local officials, including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, have voiced frustration with the reform laws.

“We share a border with the state of Washington,” Ellis said. “Truly, they do want to help us, but they are very tied.”

Ellis mentioned at least one major incident in Kootenai County in which the suspect, who was later arrested and sentenced, was a Washington resident.

“We don’t want Spokane’s criminals over here,” he said. “Not at all.”

The sheriff’s office issued a news release prior to the Fourth of July weekend this year, advising Washington residents who visit Kootenai County to leave their marijuana at home. The drug is illegal in Idaho.

Nearly half of those arrested in Kootenai County during the 2021 Independence Day weekend were from Washington, according to data released with the statement.

The statement points out that while Washington has decriminalized marijuana, Kootenai County maintains a zero-tolerance attitude.

“Don’t come to Kootenai County on Vacation and leave on Probation,” Sheriff Bob Norris said in the release.

Norris also provided a statement Thursday on the Pride in the Park event June 11 in downtown Coeur d’Alene and the scrutiny he faced for attending a Republican event in April that was apparently attended by white nationalists.

“I am not a white nationalist,” Norris said. “I do not support the speech that was used that evening on April the 16th, but I also do not support scantily clad individuals performing in a sexually suggestive manner in front of children.”

Norris referred to the drag queen show at Pride in the Park. He said many of the “alternate lifestyle people” he knows do not support the drag demonstrations, either.

Norris refused to answer questions on his statement, but that did not stop a couple people from giving their own statements on the Pride event and attempting to ask Norris questions about it.

The crowd drowned out the comments and questions with boos, angry remarks and a chant of “out,” indicating they wanted one of the attendees to leave. The sheriff’s office command staff escorted at least one of the people who addressed the sheriff about the subject to leave the room, which was applauded by attendees.

Meanwhile, Ellis said Kootenai County’s “exploding” population is creating a “ripe market” for fentanyl.

“Our number one problem right now is fentanyl,” he said.

For example, Ellis said deputies responded three nights in a row to the same person who overdosed on fentanyl.

Meanwhile, Patrol Lt. Zach Sifford discussed the sheriff’s office’s active shooter protocols and training for an active shooter.

Norris called the delayed law enforcement response to the May shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that left 19 children and two adults dead “shameful.”

“That’s never gonna happen here,” he said.

Sifford said deputies are trained to respond to an active shooter as a unit if time allows, but they will not wait to enter a building if by themselves.

“We are trained to stop the threat immediately,” he said.

Deputy Nick Franssen echoed Sifford’s comments.

“We are a direct-to-threat response, meaning that we will step past anybody including our own to get to whoever’s hurting our children, and we will stop them from being able to hurt anyone else,” Franssen said.

He said he is not waiting for anyone else.

“What we know is that these events happen very, very quickly and there’s no time to wait,” Franssen said. “So I’m not going to wait to link up with somebody else and I’m not going to start treating wounded people. I’m going to keep more people from being hurt and then we will get people out to safety. We’ll get medical treatment and we’ll pick up the pieces, unfortunately, after that.”