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The candidates for San Juan County Sheriff: Where they differ, and don’t

From left, Brent Johnson and Rob Nou are vying to become the county’s first new sheriff in 24 years. - Scott Rasmussen
From left, Brent Johnson and Rob Nou are vying to become the county’s first new sheriff in 24 years.
— image credit: Scott Rasmussen

San Juan County sheriff candidates Brent Johnson and Rob Nou have similar backgrounds, although Johnson’s is more urban and Nou’s is more rural.

Both are involved in the communities in which they live. Both have similar ideas on how to improve efficiencies and training in the department. Both believe that an investment of resources and time in children now is the best way to stop crime in the future.

Where they differ is how they would get the job done.

The department has been sued three times in the last 10 years for excessive use of force or illegal search and seizure; in one incident that didn’t result in a lawsuit, a Taser was used on a 72-year-old former town councilman who had had a stroke and had difficulty communicating.

Nou told this story during an interview at the San Juan County Fair: He was a rookie cop and was sent to arrest a man wanted on a felony warrant; the man was found working at a construction site.

Nou went to the site and found himself confronting a 6-foot-10 construction worker. Without backup. Nou talked to the suspect and found him cooperative and willing to go in. However, the suspect wanted to know if he had to be handcuffed; with his height, it would be difficult to get into the back of the car.

Nou put him in the backseat without handcuffs, and gave him the newspaper to read on the way.

“It’s not all about wielding the big stick. It’s about getting compliance,” Nou said. “You want to use the least necessary force to accomplish what you need to do.”

Johnson told of being a police officer in Albuquerque, N.M., in neighborhoods that were trying to keep rising gang activity in Bernalillo County from infiltrating. He said he’d park his car in front of a home where there had been suspicious activity, and conduct department business while he sat in the car. It was a way to let suspects know, he said, that they were being watched.

Style will likely matter as much as substance in the Nov. 2 election. With their similarities, the vote may come down to who can best articulate what he wants to accomplish — and why — as the county’s first new sheriff in 24 years.

It could be a close race. Nou outpolled Johnson by 881 votes in the Aug. 17 primary — an accomplishment, considering he moved here two years ago and lives on less-populated Lopez Island; Johnson moved here eight years ago and lives on more-populated San Juan Island. But it’s still a wide open race; both are competing for the 3,205 votes cast for the other three candidates.

Here’s the candidates’ responses to questions at the Journal booth at the county fair.

WHAT IS THE JOB OF THE SAN JUAN COUNTY SHERIFF?

Nou: The sheriff is the face and voice of the Sheriff’s Office. He articulates the philosophy of the office, the vision of that office, sets the tone for what that service looks like.

The sheriff deals with the political aspects, interfaces with the County Council, Town Council, builds and develops relationships with agencies in the region, provides overall guidance of the office.

Johnson: The sheriff gives the department direction, is a good role model, writes the budget, interacts with elected officials. He’s got to be a leader. The sheriff oversees emergency management, 911, must know how to handle 911 issues.

The office is a soapbox, from which the sheriff can help different activities that affect island life. The sheriff can lobby for public support for programs like Orcas Rec; it ties into the department if it helps kids. The sheriff also deals with various agencies and steps in and handles calls.

WHAT ARE THE DEPARTMENT'S WEAK POINTS? WHAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED?

Nou: The department feels like three agencies right now. Nou wants deputies to periodically work shifts on other islands. Deputies would get to know the communities and people outside their home island; would be better prepared to fill in during emergencies; and would be ready to cover for one another should the department begin training together in units. Nou wants to bring deputies from all three islands together for training a couple of times a year.

The policy and procedures manual must be updated to reflect the latest legal standards.

Johnson: Officers must be evaluated more often; Johnson was last evaluated six years ago. Evaluations document good performance or the lack of it, and note areas to improve upon. “What we’re doing now is really a shotgun approach to training.”

Johnson advocates training based on needs of each officer or employee. Because legal standards are constantly changing, he would like to see training on various issues with input from defense attorneys, law enforcement and judges.

HOW WOULD BUDGETING FOR THE SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT BE DONE UNDER YOUR LEADERSHIP?

Nou: The sheriff must help policy makers understand that the Sheriff's Department is the law enforcement agency in San Juan County, and provides an essential service that the county must provide by law. The department cannot afford to lose sworn officers. "I don't know that it's in the public's best interest to cut law enforcement in favor of a non-essential service."

Nou would like the budget to be more accessible and understandable to employees and the public. There are efficiencies that can be accomplished across the board in the Sheriff's Department; leased vehicles arrive new and outfitted with the latest technology, without the investment of a new-car purchase.

Johnson: The sheriff must work with the County Council to ensure council members understand the Sheriff Department budget and understand why the budget "has to be where it’s at." Johnson would ease jail costs by expanding the work crew on all of the islands. He would work with defense attorneys to reduce inmate travel costs; "There are some hearings where the client is not needed," he said.

HOW DO YOU PLAN TO KEEP THE SHERIFF'S MARINE PROGRAM GOING? WHO WILL PILOT THE GUARDIAN?

Nou: Continuing to use Sheriff Bill Cumming, who currently pilots the Guardian, is an option but is not a long-term solution. Nou wants to "deep bench" — or identify — others in the department who are qualified to skipper. The Guardian is used a lot for medical transport, and San Juan Island EMS should contribute funding for the service.

Johnson: Johnson would keep Cumming employed as skipper. EMS should help pay for the service of medical transport, which he estimates at 8-10 hours a month. The Guardian has also been used to support Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He estimates the cost of orca protection enforcement at $1,000 a day. Enforcement is difficult because the law protects Southern resident orcas, not transients, and officers have to be able to ID a local whale. Two cases were thrown out because the whale couldn't be identified as a Southern resident. It's part of the sheriff’s job to provide enforcement in county waters, but Fisheries must be involved.

SERGEANTS AND THE UNDERSHERIFF ARE SUPERVISORS. WHAT ARE THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES? HOW MIGHT THEIR RESPONSIBILITIES CHANGE WHEN YOU ARE SHERIFF?

Nou: Sergeants must be trainers and mentors. They identify rising stars and train them to be supervisors. They model good behavior, and must have good interpersonal communication skills.

Johnson: Sergeants are responsible for making sure their deputies are trained. The sergeant sets the pace, sees the reports, leads and teaches his people.

UNDER THE COUNTY CHARTER, THE SHERIFF CAN BE AN APPOINTED RATHER THAN ELECTED POSITION. SHOULD THE SHERIFF BE APPOINTED?

Nou: The sheriff should be elected. An elected sheriff enjoys much more independence than an appointed sheriff. He can make decisions without fear of losing his job.

Johnson: The sheriff should stay elected. If the people are not satisfied with the sheriff's performance, they have the control every four years.

CANDIDATES AT A GLANCE
BRENT JOHNSON
Age: 55.
Website: http://brentjohnsonforsheriff.blogspot.com.

Current position: Lead detective, San Juan County Sheriff's Department, 2002-.

Education: Associate of applied science in law enforcement, Albuquerque Tech Institute; bachelor of science in criminal justice, Wayland Baptist University.

Career: U.S. Air Force security police, 1973-79; field sergeant, administrative sergeant, investigative sergeant, Albuquerque Police Department, 1979-2000; lead investigator, Bernalillo County District Attorney's Office, 2000-01; officer, University of Washington Police, 2001-02.

Current community involvement: Co-coordinator, FireWise program; board member, Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Services; chairman, San Juan County Veterans Advisory Board; volunteer firefighter.

Voters guide statement (unedited): My family and I have lived in the San Juans since the sheriff hired me as Lead Detective eight years ago, and have seen changes both in our community and public safety needs.

I have 35 years in law enforcement — 13 in supervisory positions — a bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice, am a volunteer with the Island Red Cross, a volunteer fire fighter, a co-coordinator with Fire Wise, a board member with Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Services, and Chair of the SJC Veteran's Advisory Board.

In the current economy, we need an experienced focus on public safety, zero tolerance for crime, conserving taxes and County budget, maximizing training and skills for Deputies, expanding state and federal partnerships for more resources, keep our young people positively motivated, respecting families and seniors, and building on the outstanding legacy of our Sheriff's Dept. that has helped keep our County safe, hospitable, and progressive.

* * *

ROB NOU
Age: 51.
Website: www.robnou4sheriff.com.

Current position: Deputy, San Juan County Sheriff's Department, 2008-.

Education: Associate's degree in administration of justice, Los Angeles Valley College; bachelor’s degree, Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University); 162nd session of the FBI National Academy.

Career: Deputy, detective, field training officer, Yamhill County Sheriff's Department, 1981-86; sergeant, administrative sergeant, Yamhill County Sheriff's Department, 1986-2004; chief of police, Burns, Ore., 2004-08.

Current community involvement: Volunteer firefighter and EMT on Lopez Island; member, Lopez Island Prevention Coalition.

Voters guide statement (unedited): You, the voters of San Juan County, are making an important decision — who will lead your sheriff's office as Sheriff Cumming retires? As your next sheriff, I recognize and respect the "Islands' way of life." Each island community has its own culture and personality. Each poses unique challenges in providing the service and protection that you deserve.

As a deputy sheriff on Lopez Island, I make my home there and am part of the fabric of the community. I'm a volunteer firefighter, an EMT, and a member of the Lopez Island Prevention Coalition. I believe in working collaboratively with the community. Shoulder to shoulder we can overcome any challenge. Together we make a difference.

A police officer for 28 years, 20 years in management. Exceptional training, proven leadership. Committed to preserving the "Islands' way of life." Well qualified and prepared to lead. Elect Rob Nou, San Juan County Sheriff.

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