Funding for TNT officer could be future ballot item for Benzie County residents

BENZIE COUNTY — The Benzie County Board of Commissioners heard from law enforcement officials involved in the Traverse Narcotics Team and members of the public on the importance of having a dedicated officer in the county during a meeting on July 1.

In November of last year, Benzie County Sheriff Ted Schendel made the decision to pull Deputy Cody Castle, who was dedicated solely to working with the Traverse Narcotics Team, in order to be able to have two officers on daily patrol. TNT currently still works with the county, but there is no longer a dedicated officer working with them.

However, Schendel and some commissioners feel that not having a dedicated TNT officer is detrimental to the community, especially during a time when the county is seeing a rise in overdose related deaths. Schendel requested the county fund an additional deputy, so that a deputy could again work with TNT full-time, and the department could still have two officers on patrol during the day.

”It is an investment in the county,” Schendel said. “The TNT program is important.  We have to deal with the rising drug problem we have in this county. It is serious.”

Commissioner Roger Griner agreed, and said that nothing bothered him more than the increase in substance abuse he said he is seeing in the county.

”This is something that is really picking up,” Griner said. “I think it is very important we participate actively in TNT. I’m not sure how we can fund it yet, but we need to do it. We have a great need.”

Both Lt. Dan King, a Michigan State Police officer, and James D. Bosscher, sheriff for Missaukee County, said drugs have changed, and that rural areas everywhere are seeing more, and harder, drugs, such as heroin and methamphetamine. They also said Prescription narcotics abuse has increased.

Castle discussed his time working with TNT, and said that the program offered a lot of training for officers on how to recognize new ways drugs are transported and used. He also said drugs can change in appearance.

“I also made a lot of contacts through the program,” Castle said. “We can get in a network with a lot of different law enforcement agencies. We can get better results that way.”

Sara Swanson, prosecutor for Benzie County, said TNT was a valuable resource, because drugs cause a ripple effect in the community, leading to other types of crime. She also said TNT might be able to prevent tragedy, such as the recent overdose deaths.

The sheriff’s office is reactive; once there is a problem, they respond to it,” she said. “Often, they discover drugs when reacting to something else. TNT is more proactive. They can stop things before they go too far, or end in tragedy.”

Craig Johnson, director for Benzie County Emergency Services, said EMS transported about 160 overdose victims last year; the majority of which had overdosed on prescription drugs while taking them for recreational uses.

However, not everybody supported the position that TNT could help solve drug issues in the county. Attorney Jesse Williams, of Traverse City, said while he supported the idea of TNT working to get drugs like heroine and methamphetamine off the street, he didn’t think the current law enforcement tactics worked.

“Scare tactics and arresting more people don’t work,” he said. “Putting more people in jail doesn’t work We need to change our approach. We also need to take focus off marijuana. We don’t need to be putting kinds in jail who have committed a victimless crime. We’re wasting resources there, and arresting them doesn’t solve the problem. Then they’ve got a record, which causes more problems for them. I’m not against TNT, but we need to change how we do things and what we focus on.”

Benzie County resident Eric VanDussen agreed, and said that when law enforcement agencies and drug education programs lump marijuana into the same categories as heroin or methamphetamine, there is a disconnect.

“There are a lot of people who have tried marijuana, so they may not think heroin is that bad, if they’re talked about like they are the same thing,” he said.