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Little’s fentanyl task force convenes in Pocatello for town hall roundtable

Crime Watch

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POCATELLO — Fentanyl is directly responsible for one death, on average, every three weeks in Bannock County this year.

Bannock County Coroner Torey Danner says eight deaths were ruled drug overdoses between January and April and six of them were caused by the synthetic opiate.

Operation Esto Perpetua, a task force recently formed by Governor Brad Little, held a town hall meeting Monday afternoon in Pocatello. Little, along with regional first responders and members of the task force, commented on the especially dangerous drug that has become increasingly popular across the nation.

This task force, Little explained, was created to provide state, county and local law enforcement officers, legislators and the governor with recommendations for combatting the drug. He says it’s necessary because, while fentanyl is a growing issue, it is being “routed” through Idaho.

“It’s just gotten to be a tremendous problem,” Little said. “If you look at the statistics, it’s increased logarithmically in just the last few years.”

Rexburg Police Chief Shane Turman, one of the speakers, asked the crowd of around 70 people, how many personally knew someone who died from fentanyl use. About half of those in attendance raised their hands.

“If we don’t get control of this fentanyl, I guarantee that there will not be a person in this that, if I ask that question again in the future, will not keep their hand up. They’ll have to raise their hand,” Turman said.

Pocatello Fire Chief Ryan O'Hearn
Pocatello Fire Chief Ryan O’Hearn speaks about his department’s efforts in the battle against fentanyl. | Kalama Hines,

The meeting was as much about creating a dialogue among the community as it was about allowing speakers to ask questions of and educate the task force.

Law enforcement officers, a local DEA agent and representatives from the Bonneville and Bannock county prosecutor’s offices offered information from their unique perspectives.

Chubbuck Police Chief Bill Guiberson spoke to the increased fentanyl activity his department has seen.

Any potential drug — even those appearing to be over-the-counter Tylenol — must be treated as though it is fentanyl, he said. This is due to the fact that accidental contact with the drug could cause serious illness, injury or the death of the officer. And those dangers to the community and his department spread outward.

“It was meth 20 years ago, then it became heroin, now it’s fentanyl. Any time we get those highly addictive drugs in our community, it seems like the violence tends to increase. We’ve seen some of that here locally,” he said.

This sort of violence reared its ugly head less than one week ago, when two officers with the Pocatello Police Department were shot following a disturbance call.

RELATED | Both officers stable as investigation into Thursday officer-involved shooting continues

During his impassioned address, Pocatello Police Chief Roger Schei spoke about the incident and the increase in violence in Pocatello, saying “I’ve had enough.”

While Schei chose not to elaborate on his anger toward the shooting, he did speak to the city’s growing fentanyl issue.

Police in Pocatello did not recover any fentanyl in 2019 or 2020, he said. In 2021 though, Schei’s department recovered around 3,000 fentanyl pills. And through the first four months of 2022, than number has ballooned to more than 10,000.

“And the likelihood that you can be killed by one of these pills is 30%,” he added.

Pocatello police chief Roger Schei
Pocatello Police Chief Roger Schei speaks about the growing fentanyl issue. | Kalama Hines,

A member of the task force, Schei addressed some of the tactics he intends to use as Idaho continues its efforts against fentanyl.

Education, he said, will be a “huge” part of those efforts. Education plans have been put into affect within Pocatello/Chubbuck School District 25 and Idaho State University.

“As we develop this strategic plan, and develop these courses of action that we are going to take, we are going to continue to reach out to members of our community,” Schei said.

As speakers offered insight into combatting fentanyl on the streets, Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney from Bannock County JaNiece Price spoke to that battle carrying over into the courtroom.

As Price explained, legal language does not exist when it comes to fentanyl.

Because it is somewhat new, Idaho law does not have criminal acts involving the drug. So, there is now designated amounts for which a prosecutor can pursue a delivery or trafficking charge, which would constitute a longer prison sentence.

That issue, she said, is one that must be addressed by the state legislature.

Prior to opening the floor to speakers representing the law enforcement community and the public, Little briefly outlined efforts already underway as the state combats a fentanyl pandemic.

In addition to forming the task force, the state legislature approved a “pretty significant” increase in funding for the Idaho State Police. That funding will go to expediting forensic analysis of suspected drugs, along with adding new district offices — one of which will be constructed in Idaho Falls.