By Steve Wehrly/Journal reporter
The bulletproof vest worn by San Juan County Sheriff Rob Nou on Thursday evening wasn’t needed to ward off several pointed questions about zealous traffic enforcement. Nou kept the focus on his department’s response to the “three D’s”: domestic violence, DUIs and drugs instead.
For nearly two hours in a full meeting room at Skagit Valley College in Friday Harbor, Nou outlined problems created by domestic violence, drinking and driving, and illegal drugs before an attentive and inquisitive audience of 75 people at a meeting hosted by the “new Friday Harbor Grange.”
Nou’s first remark caught the group’s attention. “Every non-vehicle homicide in recent times in San Juan County has involved domestic violence,” said Nou.
Saying “we take it very seriously,” Nou pointed to 74 domestic disturbance calls on San Juan Island in 2012, 15 of which resulted in an arrest. They are mostly verbal arguments that get out of control, Nou said. Some involve alcohol, and the dynamics of many domestic disturbances can easily escalate into confrontations with Sheriff’s deputies, he said.
One common problem Nou mentioned is that the family unit, sometimes including the children, closes ranks and refuses intervention by law enforcement. Noting that training for deputies stresses “ratcheting down the emotions quickly,” Nou said a very disappointing aspect of domestic violence is that it’s difficult to stop once started and that it continues for generations.
Moving to drunk driving, Nou said the Sheriff’s office simply wants to get impaired drivers off the road before an innocent person, or the driver, gets hurt or killed. Nationally, he said, “one-third to one-half of traffic fatalities involve an impaired driver.”
The “random, unplanned, unexpected” accident involving impaired driving is far worse than any resulting DUI arrest, opined Nou. One reason deputies stop cars for “minor” infractions such as driving without lights in town at night or improper turn signals, said Nou, is to stop accidents before they happen.
Routine traffic stops for minor infractions and citizen displeasure over deputy decorum during those stops was the trigger for comments by Shawn Kleine, Pat Sandwith and School Board member Jennifer Furber. Nou, however, deflected the criticisms by inviting anyone with complaints to bring them to his office for private discussion. Personnel complaints are handled on a case-by-case basis, not in public forums, he said.
Asked about ticketing “quotas” for deputies, Nou strongly rejected the assertion: “There are no ticket quotas in the Sheriff’s Department.”
Later, School Board President Brent Snow, after noting that the county’s budget resources have been under pressure for several years, commented that the Sheriff’s office should “think about how you apply your limited resources” and that a traffic warning can be “just as powerful a deterrent as writing a ticket.”
The final topic of the evening was drugs, and several local residents wanted more enforcement, more patrols and more response to complaints. Nou responded that drug problems on all the islands was “in the forefront” of the Sheriff’s Department effort.
“We’ve had a tip line for a year,” Nou said - and he wrote the number, 370-7629, on the blackboard. He pointed out that the department has received only 37 tips in 370 days.
Describing the layers of the criminal justice system - police, prosecutors and judiciary - as part of the solution, Nou pointed out that there were lots of issues, especially regarding drugs such as heroin and meth, that need to be addressed and that the department needs the people’s help to address them.
After the meeting, discussions continued on several topics with Nou and four of his deputies who were in attendance. Nou was encouraged to schedule more forums, to which he readily agreed.