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Sheriff balks at doing more

Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley has decided not to sign his name to a protocol that outlines a step-by-step process that agencies should take in dealing with children found at methamphetamine labs.

Hawley recently sent a letter to the Island County Meth Action Team explaining his reasons for not signing the document. It’s not that he objects to the document, he wrote, but he has a bigger problem. His office is so short of staff that he cannot commit to an agreement that deputies may not be able to follow because of this lack of manpower.

“We will always try to do everything in the protocol,” he said. “But in this litigious world, signing the document may someday be a problem. We just don’t have the bodies to guarantee we can follow every step every time.”

Over the last decade, the calls for service to the Sheriff’s Office have doubled, Hawley said, but now he actually has fewer deputies than he did five years ago.

The creation of the Drug Endangered Child Protocol was a collaborative effort among members of the Island County Meth Action Team, law enforcement, criminal justice agencies and Child Protective Services. The Meth Action Team is a community group, funded by a small state grant, which works to prevent the manufacturing and usage of methamphetamine.

Holly Jones, coordinator for the anti-drug group Seeds of Change on South Whidbey, is also the chairperson of the Meth Action Team. She explained that the purpose

of the protocol is to “address the health and well-being of children, but also aid the county prosecutor in prosecuting offenders.”

Jones said Island County has “its share” of meth production and usage, but there’s been an unusually high number of dump sites where meth makers get rid of toxic remnants.

“It’s a very dirty county in terms of dump sites,” she said.

Jones said she has little doubt that there are children in schools who are contaminated by meth or meth labs at their homes. She said the toxic chemicals can have a very negative effect on children’s health, development and emotional state.

The protocol outlines the steps law enforcement, Child Protective Services, hospital emergency rooms and child care providers should take when a child is found at the site of a meth lab or “when there is evidence that a child has been exposed to methamphetamine and / or exposed to anhydrous ammonia, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine that is used in the production of methamphetamine.”

Under the protocol, it is law enforcement’s responsibility to take the child into protective custody, decontaminate the child, obtain a warrant for biological samples to be used as evidence and collect a urine sample within four hours. Furthermore, it states that a narcotics deputy will measure the height and reach of the children in relation to the meth lab equipment; photograph or take video of the scene while paying attention to certain risk factors, such as proximity of the lab to child play areas; photograph the children; and interview neighbors, school officials and other witnesses.

In his letter to the Meth Action Team, Hawley called the protocol “an excellent strategy” and added that “the plan will be adhered to, in spirit.” He said the welfare and safety of children will be a top priority, but he cannot guarantee the investigative work can be done as quickly as the protocol calls for. Especially since he doesn’t even have a narcotics deputy.

In his letter to the action team, Hawley goes on to describe the “dangerous levels” of staffing in his office. Five years ago, Hawley wrote a letter to the Island County Commissioners asking for funding for more deputies. At that time, he wrote that his office has the lowest staffing in the state, which is “simply an unsafe condition.”

Since then, he has actually lost deputies. He asked county commissioners for new positions for 2005, but they denied his request. Hawley’s office currently has 39 commissioned officers, including himself and the jail staff. At the same time, the calls for service have increased, as has the number of dangerous and complex cases.

Compared to other sheriff’s and police departments in the state, the Island County Sheriff’s Office has the lowest ratio of total staff to population. According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in the fall of 2003 the department had over 50,000 in habitants and 46 employees. That’s a ratio of 0.91 employees per 1,000 in habitants. Pierce County, the second lowers, had a rate of 0.92.

But when it comes to commissioned officers — actual gun-toting, badge-wearing deputies — Island County is near the bottom, but other counties are worse off. Island County has 39 deputies, which is a ratio of 0.77 per 1,000 people. Five counties have lower cop-to-inhabitant ratios, including Pierce, Clark, Kitsap, Thurston and Yakima counties.

Nearby Snohomish County — with its record numbers of meth labs and Interstate-5-related crime — has only a slightly higher ratio, 0.83, as compared to Island County.

Yet because of staffing shortages, Hawley said he was forced to eliminate many “vital” programs in the last five years. They include DARE in South Whidbey schools, the drug investigation unit, the domestic violence unit, the marine safety unit, the traffic safety unit, the SWAT team, and all training that is not mandated by the state.

Hawley said he no longer has a “narcotics deputy” that is described in the meth protocol. He said he can’t spare a detective to dedicate solely to drug enforcement.

“It’s for these reasons that I cannot formally adopt the Meth Team’s protocol,” he wrote. “Making such a commitment, while knowing full well that we do not have the resources to follow through, would be dishonest.”

Jones said she and the other members of the Meth Action Team understand Hawley’s position and don’t blame him at all. But she said she’s disappointed that budget problems should prevent the sheriff from “signing onto a really wonderful community effort.”

Jones said this should be a wake-up call to the community. “This is really a bigger statement that we all need to pay attention to,” she said. “We should all focus more on what decisions county commissioners and state legislators are making.”

The solution, Hawley said, is obviously more money for more deputies, but it’s more complicated and a larger problem than it sounds. He said he doesn’t blame the county commissioners for his budget problems, since he feels his office receives a “fair share” among county departments.

Hawley argues that the problem is that the county doesn’t have enough funds to distribute because of a sales-tax dependent system which creates haves and have-nots among counties in the state. Island County, he said, “literally loses millions of dollars in sales tax” because residents leave the island to shop in Skagit and Snohomish counties.

Hawley has been in touch with U.S. Congressman Rick Larsen and other politicians about his money problems, but he’s not holding his breath.

“We don’t need more training. We don’t need more stuff,” he said. “We need bodies. Live bodies who are out there on the streets.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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