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Sheriff declares 'state of emergency'

The forecast for the future of law enforcement in Island County went from bad to worse on Monday, as Sheriff Mike Hawley dropped a veritable bomb of bad news in the laps of the county commissioners.

Taking advantage of the public comment portion of the board’s regular Monday meeting, Hawley read aloud a memo implying, at its bleakest moments, that anarchy will erupt unless the sheriff’s department is given more funding to fill the seven patrol and investigation positions currently running vacant.

“There is nothing left for me to do,” Hawley said of his inability to function without the assurance of more money. “I am stripped. I can’t get the job done, period.”

Commissioner Mike Shelton hinted on Tuesday that such an assurance of future funding may be on its way.

“I think the immediate remedy is not so much that he doesn’t have the current financial ability to replace those people,” Shelton said, adding that what Hawley is looking for is a sort of guarantee that the board will cover the hires he needs to make.

“He want that assurance,” Shelton said. “I hope we’re going to be able to provide that sooner rather than later.”

Hawley’s comments were only the most recent in a series of budget-related jeremiads, the last occurring at a May 7 preliminary budget hearing in which the sheriff told commissioners that the expected 11 percent cut in his 2003 budget would amount to a loss of about $517,000, or the equivalent of 9.5 deputy positions. This, he explained, in a time of population growth in the county and the new challenges that brings for law officials.

At Monday’s meeting, Hawley told the board that he has lost another deputy, Rob Hardcastle, due to resignation on Friday, while yet another deputy recently suffered a debilitating medical condition that leaves his prognosis for returning to work uncertain at this time. Because the board has not provided funds, he explained, he has left these and other open positions temporarily unfilled.

Furthermore, Hawley said that it makes no sense “ethically or fiscally” to hire new employees when there’s the chance of simply turning around and laying them off next year when the next round of budget cuts are expected. He added that deputies “are not simply plucked off the street,” but even experienced cops require a minimum of six months in local field training before they can contribute to the county’s force.

Even were a new cop to be hired today, Hawley said, she or he could not begin working solo until January.

“With over 20 percent of my front line positions unfilled,” Hawley said, “I am now no longer able to provide basic law enforcement services to the citizens of Island County. This means that we are in a state of emergency.”

Without immediate action by the board, Hawley said that all 24-hour law enforcement services — including drug investigations, traffic safety, child abuse and domestic violence prevention — will “cease to exist for all intents and purposes.”

Pending what Hawley called “a sign” from the board that they support local law enforcement, things will only continue to unravel at dangerous speeds.

“The brain drain... will continue unabated, leaving me and my successors with a third-rate force, causing continual internal problems for the foreseeable future, gravely impacting the safety of all and costing millions in wasted tax dollars,” Hawley said.

Although Shelton said that he’s not sure whether the recent spate of deputy resignations is being driven by the budget or some other issue, he did express concern about slowing down the drain on the sheriff’s resources.

“We need to get some resolution for the sheriff’s department so there’s stability in terms of people’s future thinking,” Shelton said, “so they don’t need to go looking elsewhere” for a job.

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