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Signs of Crowding

"Island County Sgt. Mike Beech spent about half an hour on the phone at the beginning of his shift Friday night explaining the finer points of family law to an irate caller who is upset that his estranged wife is selling their property.The courts don't give us the authority with the badges on our chest to say 'you get the TV, you get the stereo and you get the child,' Beech tries to explain.No, he said, the police cannot arrest the woman or take her child away for having sex with another man. You can file for custody through the courts on Monday, he patiently tells the caller.It's these kinds of cases - what Beech calls the social work of police work - that make up the bulk of an Island County deputy's job on any given day. And as the calls increase, deputies like Beech are learning that skills like listening often serve them as least as well as valor.According to statistics from the Island County Sheriff's Office, deputies are becoming busier and busier with calls every year. The number of 911 calls have nearly tripled in the last 10 years, from 7,184 in 1998 to 19,860 calls last year.At the same time, the reports of serious crimes, from sexual and physical assaults to murder, have gone down or leveled off.That's no accident, Sheriff Mike Hawley said. Deputies are encouraged to respond to every call, no matter how insignificant. The philosophy, Hawley said, is to get police involved in a lot of seemingly minor incidents before they become serious trouble - something that he says keeps serious crime numbers low.On the other hand, Hawley said, the fact that the bulk of the growth in calls for service have come from neighborhood complaint calls - animal complaints, suspicious persons calls and the like - is an indication that the rural parts of the island are getting more urban as people live closer and closer together.A News-Times reporter rode along with Beech Friday to get a handle on the average day in the life of an Island County deputy.The cold, rainy night was unusually slow, but it included a typical mix of calls. Over four-and-a-half hours, Beech and the three deputies on patrol on North Whidbey handled a report of cows on a road, a domestic dispute in which a woman was accused of putting Kool-aid in a man's gas tank, a chicken-killing dog and a car accident. Beech didn't get the chance to handle any of the calls - the other deputies were there first. Instead he patrolled, pulling over a couple of speeders and reporting an abandoned car.An unusal night.More and more, Beech said his work involves things like explaining the laws, dispute resolution and basic customer service. He spends more and more time talking to people on the phone - deputies don't have cell phones - or looking up information in the computer.He said he's learned to put out fires - calm people before a crime occurs - in his seven years as a deputy. A former Navy man, he has no shortage of toughness and has used his muscle, and a healthy dose of pepper spray, when the situation required it. More often, he said patient good humor is more effective than a show of force. While he said other deputies may come off as authority figures, he said he tries to be more helpful, though it can mean putting up with verbal abuse.I'm like a social worker... he said. You have to let people vent on you. They feel better, getting it off their chests.One type of call that he's seen a big increase in is neighborhood disputes. He said he's seen neighbors get violently upset over things like property lines. But he's learned that an immediate police response is not always the best thing in these situations. Showing up in the driveway in the middle of a neighborhood dispute can escalate things, he said."

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