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Island County sheriff, prosecutor struggle with cuts

The Island County Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT-like team, called the Hard Entry and Arrest Team, was saved from the budget ax, but the number of overall number of deputies decreased significantly. - File photo
The Island County Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT-like team, called the Hard Entry and Arrest Team, was saved from the budget ax, but the number of overall number of deputies decreased significantly.
— image credit: File photo

The Island County Sheriff’s Office recently earned an inauspicious distinction when it became the sheriff’s office with the lowest staffing level in the state based on commissioned officers per 1,000 population.

Sheriff Mark Brown announced the statistic during a recent county commissioners’ meeting as part of his unending effort to convince anyone who’ll listen about the seriousness of decreases in his budget. But at the same time, he and other law-and-justice officials are moving ahead with plans for dealing with the 10 percent cuts in staff.

According to the latest statistics provided by the Washington Association and Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Island County Sheriff’s Office had the second lowest staffing level in the state as of Oct. 31, 2010. The Island County Sheriff’s Office had 0.6 commissioned deputies per 1,000 in population, while Thurston County had 0.59.

But then another deputy recently and unexpectedly quit to take a job in Kennewick and Brown decided not to replace him.

“I’m worried about more cuts, possibly this year,” Brown said, adding that not filling the position will also give him more flexibility with the budget and overtime.

As a result, Island County’s staffing level fell slightly below Thurston County’s rate at just under 0.59.

Statewide, the average staffing level in sheriff’s offices was 0.87. The FBI reports that the average rate of sworn officers per 1,000 people was 2.4 in the nation as of 2007.

“The crime rate is down, which is definitely a good thing,” Brown said, but added that calls for service hover around 20,000 a year.

“With fewer officers there’s going to be fewer arrests,” he added.

Yet at the same time, the Island County Sheriff’s Office could also be one of the grayest offices in the state, with the average age of deputies at 46 years old after younger deputies with less seniority left the department ahead of impending layoffs. While Brown said having a team of experienced deputies is definitely a good thing, he’s mindful about heaping a lot of overtime onto his mature staff.

“I hope they will get the necessary time off to regenerate,” he said. “At the same time, we all need to maintain physical fitness, and I preach that.”

Brown made regional headlines last year when he announced he was going to disband his SWAT-like response team because of budget cuts. He said senior members of his staff persuaded him to keep the team in the event it’s needed because of high-risk situations, like hostage taking. Without the team, the office would have to wait hours for the state patrol or another jurisdiction to respond.

Brown said he’s currently trying to juggle the number of deputies assigned to the three different precincts — North Whidbey, South Whidbey and Camano Island. And to deal with the decreased number of deputies on the road, the office created a new “code” for calls received through the 911 I-COM dispatch center.

Brown explained that he considered a policy under which deputies would no longer respond to certain low-priority calls, like burglary alarms, dog barking complaints or certain minor theft cases that are rarely solved. But instead, he came up with a new policy in which the deputies will still receive the low-priority calls from dispatch, but they can respond with a new code if they don’t have time to respond because of high call volume.

“I still want them to be available to respond if they have the time,” he said.

To help the deputies on the road, Brown said he, Undersheriff Kelly Mauck and possibly Jail Administrator De Dennis will work shifts patrolling in their cars. They are salaried employees, so it won’t cost the office anything extra.

Next door to the Sheriff’s Office, the Island County Prosecutor’s Office is also dealing with staffing difficulties in the wake of budget cuts.

Prosecutor Greg Banks said his small office lost a deputy prosecutor last month, which was several months ahead of a planned layoff. A legal assistant was laid off at the beginning of the year and another went on maternity leave last week. On top of that, a deputy prosecutor is taking a three-week vacation that was planned before the latest round of budget cuts.

“It’s a ghost town up here,” Banks said. “Tumbleweed is blowing through the office right now.”

A few years ago, the office had three deputy prosecutors handling cases in district court, but now it’s down to just one. To help with the estimated 1,200 cases a year, Banks said he’s had to assign a couple of the more senior deputy prosecutors to handle a share of the work. As a result, he and Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme will handle more felony cases.

Banks said he’s going to try to limit the one full-time district court deputy to 700 cases a year, but that’s still a huge load. In comparison, the county’s contract with a defense firm limits defense attorneys to 350 cases a year in district court.

Banks said he’s been working with law enforcement to limit the kinds of cases that are sent to district court, but has encountered some resistance. He suggested that officers stop handing out infractions for routine driving while license suspended cases, which account for about 350 cases a year. He points out that state lawmakers have considered de-criminalizing such cases because criminal charges usually don’t prevent people from driving without valid licenses, but just make it harder for low-income people to get valid licenses.

But Banks said the state patrol won’t go along with the idea because of a statewide policy. Instead, he’s looking at other ways to deal with suspended license cases. One idea is just to drop the cases after the first hearing, unless the deputy prosecutor decides it’s an especially egregious example.

Yet the deputy prosecutors in district court, Banks said, will continue to give priority to DUI and domestic violence cases.

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