Q&A: Candidates for San Juan County Sheriff

The candidates for San Juan County Sheriff: From left, Sheriff
The candidates for San Juan County Sheriff: From left, Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Asher, Adult Probation Officer Brad Fincher, Sheriff's Lead Detective Brent Johnson, Sheriff's Deputy Felix Menjivar, Sheriff's Deputy Rob Nou.
— image credit: Journal of the San Juan Islands

The Journal of the San Juan Islands asked the candidates for San Juan County Sheriff four questions:

1. The Sheriff’s Guild has agreed to a pay freeze this year — about $70,000 in savings for one year. What are some other cost containment and/or revenue enhancement opportunities?

2. What options are there to ensure the west side of San Juan Island is patrolled to enforce local and state laws regarding boat interaction with the endangered orca pods.

3. What steps can be taken to reduce property crime, i.e. burglary, thefts, shoplifting?

4. What is the biggest challenge facing the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department?

Here are their answers.

Sheriff’s deputy

Answer No. 1: To enhance revenue without new taxes, we can create partnerships with other agencies in targeting the large-scale drug traffickers that use our county as a highway to urban centers.

I was one of several officers involved in an arrest that resulted in the Department receiving $173,000 of captured drug money. This is possible because seized assets are used to support the participating agencies.

Prudent budgetary reductions are possible:

— Choose long-lasting vehicles suited to island tasks.

— Track maintenance costs to determine when a vehicle is too expensive to keep.

— Bring trainers to the county rather than having officers travel to the mainland for one-at-a-time training.

— Teleconferencing for pre-trial court proceedings would save the extraordinary expense of repeatedly flying detainees on and off the island.

I oppose further reductions in deputies because we cannot reduce our crime-related workload. As the ferry system has recently demonstrated, reduction of staff can be more expensive. The work remains to be done, and overtime charges end up costing more than the original workers. Equally important, remaining deputies would be overworked.

It has been suggested that we close our emergency dispatch center and use the Island County dispatch center on the mainland for our 911 calls. Have you used a distant call center to, say, get your DSL connection fixed? Such systems are inherently confusing and slow. We need to keep our local dispatchers working here.

Answer No. 2: The survival of our whales depends in part on this regulation effort, so interagency protocols must be developed. Clear standards of evidence will insure that only true violators are cited and will require photographic evidence.

Land-based webcams already monitor much of this area. Using time stamped photos with fixed position cameras will fairly establish when a distance violation occurs. Telephoto time-stamped photos taken on the water by enforcement agents can capture vessel registration numbers.

To protect agency budgets, agents could be recruited from qualified whale observers and advocates. Citations would be delivered by mail, eliminating the need for a robust police presence.

Answer No. 3: See below.

Answer No. 4: The biggest challenges facing the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department are:

— Property crimes such as burglary, thefts, and shoplifting.

— Deaths and injuries from DUI drivers.

— Budget deficits.

In our county, there are a large number of highly trained former law enforcement officers who are willing and able to help us as part-time deputies. I will use this pool of highly qualified experienced officers to form the Reserve Officer Corps (ROC). For the price of a uniform and a small stipend, the ROC will significantly improve enforcement in our county.

Help with the booking process at high demand times will allow our full-time deputies to quickly get back to work in our neighborhoods.

ROC street coverage will allow full time deputies the time they need to complete quality crime scene investigations thus creating more convictions. This will also allow us to respond to more than one crime at a time.

Community coverage by the Reserve Officer Corps during low demand times will allow our full time deputies to gather together for debriefings and training – something that is critical for improvement but currently impossible.

Our deputies are individually trained off-island at considerable expense. With coverage by the Reserve Officer Corps, we can, for a significantly reduced cost per deputy, bring a trainer here and provide new skills and knowledge to several deputies at once.

Last, community policing and a strong citizen advisory board will improve trust and cooperation between citizens and deputies providing a united front against criminals.

Probation officer

Answer No. 1: I support the decision not to take the COLA; difficult times require difficult sacrifices. All county employees, including management and elected officials, should follow this example. Together, it would reduce next year’s budget shortfall.

Ways to increase revenue for the Sheriff’s Office include: grant writing to fund equipment and training, reduce overtime costs by reestablishing a reserve deputy program and being open to change when I see an opportunity to manage our resources better.

Answer No. 2: Our Southern Resident orca pods are a tremendous resource for us in San Juan County. They deserve to be protected. Federal law mandates this. Unfortunately, there is inadequate funding to manage this properly on the Federal, State and Local levels.

Realistically, to put a sheriff patrol boat on the west side to enforce these laws would cost approximately $300,000-$400,000 for a six-month season. The revenue generated by violations would not be sufficient to cover these costs. Working with state and federal jurisdictions, as well as Soundwatch, we should establish a team-based schedule, where all parties contribute, covering more time out on the water with the whales. Building working relationships with these other enforcement agencies is in everyone’s best interest.

Answer No. 3: Property crimes are primarily crimes of opportunity committed by culprits addicted to drugs and alcohol. This behavior starts very young in life by youth that are alienated by poverty, poor parenting, or other unfortunate situations. This leads to self-medication with drugs or alcohol. This results in addiction. In order to support the addiction they start stealing.

A long-term solution is to connect our young people with mentors and opportunities that give them self-esteem and a connection to the community. Also, some adults move to the islands and already have established patterns of criminal behavior. They do not have community values. These people need to know that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in San Juan County.

By building relationships with employers, business owners and community leaders we can offer assistance for those adults that need help. For those people who provide drugs and alcohol to our youth, they will be caught, convicted and punished. The Healthy Use Survey conducted on San Juan Island in 2008 showed over 80 percent of the students surveyed felt drugs and alcohol were easy to obtain. Because we are a small community we have the unique opportunity to help solve this problem with prevention, education and intervention.

Answer No. 4: Most of the crimes committed here are drug and/or alcohol fueled, an ever-increasing issue in our county. We can make a difference by working together to cut off the sources of illegal drugs and educate our families on alcohol and prescription drug abuse.

As sheriff, if a community member steps out of their comfort zone by reporting illegal activity, it will be investigated as quickly as possible. Within the confines of the law, drug dealers will know they are not welcome here. Safety and security are my top priorities. It takes each of us to get involved to really see the positive changes we can make together.

Sheriff’s detective

Answer No. 1: Unemployment and shrinking budgets are increasing, and the worst is not over yet. The Sheriff’s Guild responded with a one-year salary freeze, and I would suggest that the Guild agree to another one-year contract with a 1 percent raise (saving an additional 3 percent of the raise the auditor has included in her strategic budget outlook for 2010-16), that would save an additional $70,000 in the next year.

Police agencies are not usually revenue-producing, but there are some enhancement steps we can take in San Juan County: further utilization of the sheriff’s work crew, which is self-supporting; expanding a volunteer reserve deputy program; partnering with other law enforcement agencies; aggressively seeking state, federal, and foundation grants.

Answer No. 2: The orca whale is an important part of our island life, helping to maintain our islands’ ecosystems, and providing a significant economic presence in employment, tourism and recreation. They MUST be protected, and while a number of laws have been legislated in their favor, the enforcement aspect of these laws has been insufficiently funded.

NOAA and the Washington state Fish and Wildlife Service patrol the west side of San Juan Island only as often as their budgets permit. Last year, our Sheriff’s Office received a grant for enforcement, but was only able to patrol a few days each week. This year, we did not even receive that modest grant, and the county does not actively fund our boat patrols.

We need to strengthen our relationship with NOAA and WSFW to improve our position vis-à-vis grants and patrolling.

Answer No. 3: We can reduce property crime through education and enforcement. Neighborhood Watch programs help protect against burglaries and thefts. We can further deflect these crimes by locking our doors and windows, remembering to remove valuables from our vehicles, and locking them securely.

Most thefts are “crimes of opportunity”, and even business owners should learn the techniques of shoplifters, and how to minimize those opportunities. Our department has noted that shoplifting is primarily a crime of young adults, and word gets out if the law enforcement is passive. Thus, we need businesses to be assertive and follow through with prosecution. Working as partners with our schools and community organizations would significantly increase deterrence.

Answer No. 4: The greatest challenge facing our department is the current economic slump and our county’s budget crisis. The delivery of services to our community is our highest priority, and is largely dependent upon available revenues.

Our budget affects how we train, how and what equipment we buy, how we enforce laws, how are services are structured, how we can respond forcefully to drug and alcohol violations, and, possibly, how many deputies we can retain.

I will always prioritize delivery of services to our citizens, so that even those 4 a.m. emergencies will have a well-trained deputy responder.

Sheriff’s deputy

Answer No. 1: One way to temporarily reduce cost is to reduce the number of vehicles we replace each year.

We could replace two vehicles instead of three for a couple of years. I do not recommend doing this permanently, as it would cost the Sheriff’s office more money in the long run. The older the vehicle gets, the more expensive the maintenance and the more unreliable the vehicle becomes. The vehicles being replaced have over 150,000 miles and are about 10 years old.

I do not recommend staffing reductions as that would result in service reduction causing increased overtime.

Answer No. 2: Without substantial funding from the county, patrolling the west side of San Juan to enforce state and local law regarding boat interaction with the whales is not possible. We do not have the manpower to patrol the waters of San Juan and still have deputies on patrol, without using overtime.

Answer No. 3: There are many things that can be done to reduce property crime. Most property crime is a crime of opportunity. Lock your cars and homes, do not leave the keys in the cars, get to know your neighbors and let them know when you are gone for long periods of time. In every single stolen car report I have taken since 2002, the keys were in the car and the car was unlocked.

The most important way to combat shoplifting is by having consistent reporting by the business. Shoplifters don’t like to go to jail.

We live in a safe and wonderful place, but take precautions to keep honest people honest and to make it difficult for the dishonest ones.

Answer No. 4: We have several challenges ahead, but the biggest challenge will be to keep current staffing levels in light of continuing budget cuts. Population keeps increasing, but patrol deputies do not.

It takes 5.5 deputies to provide 24-hour coverage 7 days a week. This does not take into account vacation, sick leave, training or testifying in court. We have three deputies on Lopez, four deputies and a sergeant on Orcas (this sergeant also supervises Lopez), and six deputies and a sergeant on San Juan Island. We have two detectives that handle all major investigations for the whole county; this includes general crimes, sex crimes and drug crimes.

These are the facts. In order for our citizens to make educated decisions, I believe it is extremely important to provide them with the facts.

Sheriff’s deputy

Answer No. 1: Clearly in today’s economy, tax revenues are stretched tight. In an effort to increase revenue to the sheriff’s office, grant opportunities must be aggressively pursued. All avenues must be explored in order to preserve the levels of protection that are vital to all of us in San Juan County.

Also, the public and the policymakers must recognize the priority of emergency services in making budget and program decisions. Public safety is an essential service that only the county is in the position to provide.

Answer No. 2: The sheriff’s office possesses the resources to provide a regular high-visibility presence on the water. With patrol boats and several marine-certified deputies, it would not be difficult to provide regular marine patrols to address marine- related issues throughout the county, including the endangered orcas on the west side of San Juan Island. Both NOAA and state Parks and Recreation provide funding for marine patrol activities for the sheriff’s office. I am absolutely committed to providing an increased seasonal patrol presence on the waters of San Juan County.

Answer No. 3: In order to reduce property crimes, all of us must actively participate. The culture of the islands has allowed for a way of life where people feel safe leaving their homes unlocked, their keys in their cars, boats and aircraft, and are generally safe to do so. This past year, the Barefoot Bandit demonstrated how vulnerable we can be to criminals who do not share our values.

Simple steps, like locking doors, watching out for your neighbors and reporting suspicious activity as it is occurring can go a long way to reduce and prevent many of these crimes.

Answer No. 4: The biggest challenge facing the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office is having adequate resources to fulfill our many missions. San Juan County is unique in the fact that there is no redundancy or overlap in coverage that exists in every other county in Washington. There are no city police agencies here. There are no state troopers here. Further, our resources are deployed among islands, making it difficult to move resources quickly between islands in an emergency.

Maintaining the resources that we currently have is absolutely vital to providing for the public safety of all in San Juan County.

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