Wapato police seek long-term solution as public intoxication surges

Wapato police seek long-term solution as public intoxication surges

WAPATO, Wash. -- Years later, public drunkenness is still a big problem in Wapato. But it has become more challenging than ever for city leaders to address.

Last year the council imposed a public drinking ordinance that was quickly tabled months later as the Yakama Nation gained full authority over civil and criminal matters of tribal members.

Despite the public intoxication issue in the community, Wapato police now have their hands tied when it comes to tribal members.

“Wapato does have a public intoxication problem, essentially [people] just walking around town with alcohol,” said Wapato Police Chief David Simmons.

Many tribal members are part of the community, but now they answer to tribal police, leaving Wapato's chief in a tough spot.

“The tribe is dedicated and working very hard to provide treatment access to the members of the tribe and to deal with the plague - the scourge you might say - of alcohol on the reservation,” said Chief Simmons.

Plaguing tribal members, who comprise about 15 percent of the community.

Liquor flows with five licensed bars and five retailers, plus taverns on the outskirts of town. It has many locals feeling frustrated, including one business owner who talked to Action News on the condition of anonymity.

RELATED: Wapato asks businesses to stop selling 40 oz. beers & high-alcohol drinks

“I noticed every day - I mean every day - people drinking out here in the park,” he said. “The drinking problem never stops, even gets worse in summer because it gets more hot.”

Amid hot weather, there has been a spike in public intoxication calls over recent years - 182 so far this year that have been transferred over to tribal police. It’s a 41 percent jump since 2015.

Wapato authorities said they are still trying to collaborate with tribal police and the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board.

“Getting all of their different interests to align and attack the problem is not the easiest thing to do,” said Chief Simmons.

He said it boils down to the disease of alcoholism, which has also caused homelessness and littering across the city.

Action News asked what some possible solutions could be.

“Anything that we do needs to have some kinds of treatment component to it,” said Chief Simmons. “Having limitations on types of alcohol; there's been some voluntary agreements with the stores that I think has been marginally successful.”

No quick fixes or actionable plan for an ongoing problem, leaving the drinking ordinance in limbo and the community without answers.

A ticket for public intoxication in Washington could cost up to $1,000 and/or 90 days in jail, which can be a sobering number for some.

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