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Sheriff calls for backup in budget

The Island County Sheriff’s Office has one of the lowest staffing levels among all law enforcement organizations in the state.

On the other hand, the rate of major violent and property crimes in Island County is half of the state average. The number of calls for service that deputies respond to hasn’t increased much. And last year, the sheriff hired three new deputies, bringing staffing levels to a historic high.

Nevertheless, Sheriff Mark Brown made a passionate and perhaps convincing plea for more deputies during a session with the Island County commissioners Monday afternoon. He wants three more deputies, two additional corrections deputies and a part-time records clerk to become a full-time position.

The request would cost the county an extra $550,000 or so a year.

Moreover, Brown’s eight-year plan calls for a total of 13 more deputies in a department that currently has 33 patrol deputies, five detectives and one evidence technician.

Brown’s argument centered on the importance of providing adequate backup for his deputies in the geographically-challenging county.

“My biggest fear is ... that I fail to properly emphasize the importance of what can happen at 3 a.m. in a remote area in our county when a deputy tries to take a drunk disorderly male subject into custody by himself,” Brown said, “or when the corrections officer gets assaulted trying to control an angry father from harming a sex offender in a courtroom because I failed to address the manpower shortages in these vital professions.”

The ultimate goal, Brown said, is to have at least two patrol deputies in each of the county’s three precincts on duty at all times. Also, he hopes to position a deputy on Camano Island full time for the first time and perhaps add another detective on Whidbey Island.

The two new commissioners, John Dean and Phil Bakke, seemed receptive to the sheriff’s requests, though veteran Commissioner Mac McDowell said he was “taken aback.” He said he agrees that the county needs two deputies in each precinct during each shift.

“I thought we were about there with last year’s hires,” he said, referring to the three new deputies the department hired last year. According to his calculations, 30 patrol deputies are needed to provide double-coverage, though he said he realizes there are times when the sheriff wants more than two deputies on duty in one of the three precincts.

More importantly, McDowell pointed out that the county has just $300,000 in new money this year, but county departments have made $1.2 million in new requests.

“I am sure the sheriff’s arguments are very valid, just like all the requests we hear,” McDowell said.

Beyond the

crime rate

In an interview, Undersheriff Kelly Mauck pointed out that major crime rates, though low in the county, don’t tell the entire story. Deputies and detectives handle more than 24,000 calls for service a year, or an average of 615 calls per deputy. In King County, 658 deputies and detectives handle 124,135 calls, or about 188 each.

“About 85 percent of what a deputy does is other than major crimes,” he said.

Mauck said more than a third of the calls are the type that at least two deputies should respond to, but often they are handled by only one person.

Also, the time a deputy has to spend on the typical call is increasing.

“The complexity of the calls has changed,” Mauck said. “The reality is that society’s expectations are going up and we have to do more and more.”

A good comparison, Mauck said, is between the Island County Sheriff’s Office and neighboring Skagit County, where the sheriff’s office covers a slightly smaller population. Yet the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office has 18 more patrol deputies than Island County and handles fewer calls a year.

In fact, the Island County Sheriff’s Office has the lowest staffing level of all sheriff’s offices in the state serving unincorporated populations between 50,000 and 100,000. At 0.75 deputies per thousand people, that’s the third lowest staffing level of all counties.

Also, Mauck said the rectangle-shaped Skagit County is much easier to coordinate patrols in than Island County’s two unconnected islands.

On the other hand, Skagit County simply has more serious crime. In 2006, the rate of violent crime — murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — in unincorporated Island County was 0.6 per 1,000 people. The rate of property crime — arson, burglary, larceny and car theft — was 24.9 per 1,000 population.

In Skagit County, the violent crime rate was 1.7 per 1,000 people, nearly triple the Island County rate. And the property crime rate was 37.8 per 1,000.

Jail needs

more help

Sheriff Brown also emphasized that things are getting busy in the jail. While the average daily population of the jail is 57 people, the complexity of the job has increased significantly. The job in the jail is no longer just about warehousing bad guys.

Brown said the jail staff, under the leadership of Jail Administrator De Dennis, is joining in “a nationwide progressive attempt to slow down recidivism by becoming proactive in gaining community cooperation to help solve the four main prisoner release issues — addiction, mental health, gainful employment and housing.”

Also, Brown explained that jail staff is spending more and more time transporting inmates between counties and to hospitals, as well as providing security in the growing number of court hearings. The jail has been functioning with 18 officers since 1998.

In addition, Brown said his office’s five full-time and one half-time records clerks are simply overtaxed, especially in the face of increasing public records requests. He compared his office to the Oak Harbor Police Department, which he said has four records clerk that have much less work because they don’t do civil paperwork.

“We do that for them,” he said.

Another telling statistic, Mauck said, is the amount of unused vacation and “comp time” that deputies hold. The average deputy has 320 hours of vacation and 131 hours of comp time. At least one deputy has more than 800 hours of vacation time.

Holding onto vacation time may be a personal decision for some deputies, but Mauck said sometimes vacation requests are denied in order to man shifts.

“There are times when you just have to tell people they can’t take time off,” he said, “and that’s not good for morale or health.”

Yet the sheriff and undersheriff said they have many things to brag about in their office. They are starting up a marine safety unit with state funds. Brown created a one-man traffic safety unit and emphasized the importance of traffic stops. As a result, this year the department is on pace to stop about 16,000 cars, which is double the 8,000 stops from last year. The number of fatal accidents has decreased.

Mauck said the department has significantly increased training this year. He said, at the beginning of the year, 15 deputies were out of compliance with a new law that requires 24 hours a year of ongoing training. Now they are in compliance.

Partly because of the staffing shortage, Island County deputies are forced to deal with a huge variety of situations, from investigating burglaries to settling neighborhood disputes.

“I guarantee you we have some of the best general purpose deputies in the state,” he said.

You can reach reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com.

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