Part 2:

Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher

In 1977 Bob Fletcher entered law enforcement after graduating from Hamline University He was ready to fulfill his mother’s wishes of his becoming a lawyer when innocent trip to a local burger joint and a girlfriend’s gentle nudge thrust him into the world of law enforcement. Fletcher severed many positions with the St. Paul Police Department where he rose through the ranks. Fletcher was first elected Ramsey County Sheriff in 1994. He was re-elected in 1998, 2002, 2006 and then elected again in 2018, beginning the four-year term this past January.

Ramsey County Undersheriff Bill Finney

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Undersheriff William (Bill) Finney’s entry into the world of public service; a career that began with the Mankato Police Reserve, which began as a dare. Finney spent more than 30 years rising through the ranks of the St. Paul Police department, first as a patrolman in 1971 to 1978, sergeant 1978 to 1982, lieutenant 1982 to 1987 and captain 1987 to July 1992. He became the first African-American chief of police in St. Paul in 1992, and served as chief for 12 years. Now Finney dons the brown uniform of Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department in his current role as Ramsey County Undersheriff.

Insight News: How do we educate, communicate, make people aware of the challenges, the dangers of opioid use and abuse?

Fletcher: It’s a top priority for us. That’s the top priority for the country, both on our public safety and our public health. Three and a half years ago I lost a son to an opioid overdose. I struggled with him for two years as he tried to beat his addiction.

And frankly, he did.

He started when he was a 16-year-old and he eventually beat it. The juvenile justice system helped him beat it because it’s designed to help a person get the treatment they need. The adult system, unfortunately, isn’t like that. And we need to make some improvements in the adult detention and correction systems so that people get adequate chemical addiction health services they need.

It took my son five different interventions in treatments. He did use alcohol as a drug of choice, unfortunately, but he stayed free from illicit drugs. Then on his 26th birthday, he was in Los Angeles recording an album and people brought drugs around. He used them. Because he hadn’t used drugs for so long. His resistance was down but the drugs were probably stronger than ever. His heart stopped. Everybody panicked. There was no Narcan there. And the medics didn’t get there in time.

So I’ve experienced the whole spectrum of opioid use and abuse. It’s a top priority to fix this. Nationally, last year 70,000 people died from an opioid overdose. 50,000 died from car accidents. We have to make this a priority if we want to fix this.

When I was here last time we attacked the meth problem. We had large conferences, we went out to schools, we educated people, we brought the chemicals that were used in making meth, we showed the kids, “This is what you’re putting in your body,” and we cracked down on the meth labs. I’m proud to say we made a difference on the meth front. Now we have to make a difference in the opioid front.

Finney: It’s going to be a combination of educating people to understand how quickly addiction can turn to a life and death situation. It’s going to take making sure Narcan is available. Narcan will save lives but what we really want to do is help people stop using. The fentanyl addiction … a year ago we had an employee here who died from a fentanyl overdose… so we know how difficult it is to beat it but we just have to keep sounding the alarm. We need legislation at the capitol so that puts extra money into treatment programs so these people have an opportunity for treatment.

What we can control, really, is the 25,000 people that walk through our doors. We need to make sure that every person that is detained gets access to treatment and understands what is available to them to help them beat their addiction.

Eighty percent of the people that walk in our door have an addiction problem, 75 percent have mental health issues that are related and 70 percent can’t read very well, so there are education issues. We can really help them with addiction, mental health and their ability to get jobs on the outside.

Insight: How do you address the issue of past legislation, policies, and strategies including the disparate treatment of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine users? What do you do about the arrest and incarceration of marijuana offenders, particularly since medicinal use of marijuana is now legal, and the state seems to be moving towards recreational use? What are the practical effects of this trend? How do you also ensure public safety for individuals and the community?

Finney: At the national level, Federal law regarding incarceration for crack versus cocaine, is trying to create some equity there. But let’s start on the front end. It’s clear that we need to look at the decriminalization of marijuana. I’m not saying that we should make it legal. I’m not at that point yet in my evolution. But I can tell you that we don’t need people with a marijuana addiction clogging up our justice system or detention system. Well, we broadly point out recreational use being authorized all throughout the country, I’m a big fan of medical marijuana here and that’s because I had a sister who suffered from breast cancer for six years and she was unable to get adequate medical marijuana. And so you force people to go underground to get marijuana. That’s not the type of a society that we want. It means a lot of people end up getting caught into the system.

But even in the case of people that use cocaine and opioids, we don’t want to be filling up our jail with drug users, either. I’ve seen a lot of people arrested for having one or two pills in a bottle in their car. That might be technically illegal and they’re self-medicating. These are not dealers. These are people that have a prescription drug that isn’t theirs but through trial and error, over time, decided, “I need this.” They self-medicate. My son was one of those. He got arrested for having a pill.

People there are self-medicating and might have an illegal drug, but do you want to charge them with a felony and ruin their life? I don’t think so. But there are cops on the street that look for that type of arrest. We need to move away from that.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum, we can’t stop enforcement against the hardcore dealers that are pushing and getting kids started in a variety of heroin-related drugs.

And at a local level, sometimes it’s very difficult for us to address.

But clearly, on the marijuana end and even the felony use of a couple of pills, we want to provide treatment options. Now, how do we get there? Frankly, the drug court concept that we have here at Ramsey County is excellent. I’m talking with Minnesota Teen Challenge about creating a place, rather than bringing people to jail, creating a location that when we arrest people that have some type of illegal substance, taking them to a Teen Challenge facility that the arrested person would sign in, saying, “We agree that we’re going to stay here for three days,” rather than staying in the jail for three days.

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