Burglaries top troubling increase in Island County crime

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown gives a press conference about a double murder last October. The case was one of many serious crimes that have stretched his office’s resources.  - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Island County Sheriff Mark Brown gives a press conference about a double murder last October. The case was one of many serious crimes that have stretched his office’s resources.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

In one week in March, deputies with the Island County Sheriff’s Office responded to 411 calls for service. Among the long list of incidents they had to deal with were 19 car accidents, 12 burglaries, 11 thefts, nine assaults and three sex offenses.

Amidst the calls, on-duty deputies rushed to find a man who had kidnapped a woman and a 4-year-old boy from a home on South Whidbey. While several deputies ran down leads, others scoured the roads for the suspect’s truck. They ultimately found the vehicle near Coupeville, arrested the man and saved the woman and child.

While it was a noteworthy week, Sheriff Mark Brown said it’s not completely out of the ordinary. His deputies and detectives have been dealing with an increasing number of calls from citizens and, even more troubling, an increase in the number of serious crimes. Last October, they handled a double murder and then a case in which a man allegedly stabbed both of his parents.

Yet recently compiled crime statistics show that the most glaring trend in both Island County and the city of Oak Harbor is the skyrocketing number of burglaries. Many burglary suspects have been caught and sent to jail, but the problem persists. So far this year, burglaries reported in the county have more than doubled since last year.

In response, Brown is once again waging a public relations campaign aimed at convincing the county commissioners, and the public, that he absolutely needs more money for more deputies. He lost 23 percent of his commissioned officers in the last three years and described his office --- currently with 33 commissioned officers --- as the lowest-staffed in the state based on population.

“I’m certainly sensing that everyone is feeling stretched very thin,” he said. “At some point, this has to end. Something has to change.”

Brown probably has one of the grayest offices in the state. The average age of his deputies is 46 years old.

Solutions are nebulous. Brown said he was told by a county commissioner that he’s unlikely to get much extra from the bare-bones current expense fund, which pays for law and justice departments and many other general government functions. He said some people have made a point of emphasizing that 57 percent of current expense funds now go to the law-and-justice department, which is a much higher proportion than in previous years.

But Brown said he surveyed sheriffs and found that other counties fund those department at an even higher percentage of their current expense funds.

“I know that a lot of other departments are also hurting and I’ve been criticized for demanding more, but it’s my job to advocate for law enforcement,” he said. “I believe we should be the top priority.”

Undersheriff Kelly Mauck said the office needs a minimum of five more  deputies to deal with the crime increases and provide a consistent coverage of two patrol deputies in each of three precincts 24 hours, seven days a week. But to come up with the money for that, the county commissioners would have to make drastic cuts in other departments. Closing all the county parks and laying off the parks staff, for example, wouldn’t even be enough.

Brown and other officials have kicked around the idea of proposing a special law-and-justice sales tax to voters, but he said it’s far from a perfect solution.

Undersheriff Mauck suspects that the rise in crime is connected to the budget cuts, which included the elimination of the office’s drug enforcement unit and the designated traffic unit. The detective dedicated to investigating sex crimes and keeping track of registered sex offenders is doing the job that two detectives used to handle.

“I think we are starting to see the results of a lack of pro-active drug investigations,” he said. “A lot of crimes, especially burglaries, are connected to drugs.”

Statistics from the sheriff’s office show that the number of the most serious, violent crimes increased 10 percent from 2010 to 2011. The number of murders went from none to two. The reports of rapes more than doubled from six to 13. On the positive side, the number of robberies stayed the same at three each year and the number of aggravated assaults decreased from 31 to 26.

The overall number of 44 of the most serious crimes in 2010 may not seem like a huge burden, but Brown explained that those types of crimes take an immense amount of time for deputies who respond to the scene and the detectives who investigate. Less-serious cases inevitably get pushed aside.

“We know that there are things falling through the cracks,” Mauck admitted.

While violent crime increased, burglaries have mushroomed. Reports of burglaries increased from 187 in the year 2010 to 331 last year. That’s a 77 percent jump. And they’re not letting up. Mauck said that from Jan. 1 to March 22 of this year, deputies responded to 105 burglaries. During the same period last year, they handled 49 burglaries.

In addition, the volume of 911 calls that deputies respond to increased by 12.5 percent in one year.

The story is a little different within the limits of Oak Harbor. Police Chief Rick Wallace said the officers also saw a sizable increase in burglaries, from 114 in 2010 to 144 in 2011. But he said 911 calls have remained relatively static in the last couple of years and the rates of most major crimes either stayed the same or decreased slightly.

The Oak Harbor Police have faced budgets cuts in recent years, but it’s nowhere near the level of reductions that have hit the sheriff’s office or the county in general. Wallace said he currently has left two positions unfilled because he’s concerned about the prospects of more budget trimming later this year.

The passage of a special sales tax increase could pour more money into law enforcement, but there are problems with the idea.

State law authorizes the county to ask voters to pass a special law-and-justice sales tax increase of one-tenth of 1 percent. If passed, 60 percent of the funds would go to the county and 40 percent would be distributed to cities. Brown explained that only one-third of the funds would have to go to criminal justice or firefighting purposes. In addition, he said the law allows supplanting, which means the money could be used to funds things that are already being funded.

Mauck points out that the way the law is written, the sheriff’s office could conceivably receive no net increase in funding.

“If it were framed in a way that people knew exactly what they were voting on and exactly where the money would go, then it might work,” Brown said.





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