In Our Opinion: History of Whidbey Island law enforcement is one of reform

Whidbey Island residents are lucky to have the professionally run law enforcement agencies that protect and serve the citizens, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been trouble over the years.

This newspaper has reported numerous stories on officers saving lives, protecting victims, bringing murderers and rapists to justice and practicing commendable restraint. Whidbey law enforcement is ahead of much of the nation on professional standards and training, especially for being relatively small departments.

Yet while the nation is debating racism, use of force and misconduct in policing, people should also remember that getting to this point on Whidbey hasn’t been a smooth road for law enforcement, but involved ugly chapters that spurred reform and the removal — mostly — of officers who commited misconduct.

In the 1990s, the sheriff’s office was embroiled in scandal over sexual harassment, in-fighting and lawsuits. The sheriff at the time resigned and the man appointed sheriff and others helped to restore professionalism and decency.

Also in the 1990s, a man named Edward Gregoire died after hanging himself in the jail, leading to a lawsuit and reforms. A jury found that the police were negligent in not monitoring the extremely distraught man, but their actions were not the proximate cause of the death. The state Supreme Court overturned the verdict, noting that jailers had a special duty to care for inmates.

A 2015 death in the Island County Jail led to extensive reforms, terminations, a multi-million-dollar settlement and jail sentences for two corrections deputies. Keaton Farris, a white 25-year-old man, was in jail for allegedly forging a check and suffered a mental health crisis. He died from dehydration after the water was turned off in his cell and he wasn’t given enough water to survive. Jailers forged records to make it look like they had been checking on him more than they had.

Leaders at law enforcement agencies, as well as prosecutors, have largely taken officer misconduct seriously, which sometimes meant disagreements with the guilds. A deputy, for example, was fired in 2006 for shirking his duty in not adequately responding to a 911 call that turned out to be a rape case.

In 2014, a Coupeville deputy was accused of handcuffing his former girlfriend during a roadside squabble and coaching her about what to tell investigators. He faced felony charges but pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. The same year, a detective who investigated sex crimes in the sheriff’s office was fired for sexually harassing another detective. An arbitrator later restored the deputy’s job.

In the last five years, an officer was fired after FBI officers arrested him for possessing child pornography and the Langley police chief was asked to resign after he was accused of using unnecessary force against a mentally ill man.

While this history may not inform discussions over racism in policing — the only person of color mentioned was Gregoire — it does show the devastating impact problems in law enforcement can have and that reform can work.