2015 in review with undersheriff Brent Johnson

When sheriff Ron Krebs took the helm of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office this January, he appointed Lead Detective Brent Johnson his second in command as undersheriff. The Journal asked Johnson to share his perspective on the past year.

When sheriff Ron Krebs took the helm of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office this January, he appointed Lead Detective Brent Johnson his second in command as undersheriff. The Journal asked Johnson to share his perspective on the past year.

One of his top messages to the community was this: “We have good deputies. They’re here to serve, and they really do try to serve. As a whole, the deputies are good people. We want people to call, and we’re here to serve, and we will listen to you and try to make things better if we can.”

As undersheriff, Johnson said he helps Krebs hammer out decisions on department policy, and he also provides support to the deputies, helping provide them with needed training and equipment. He said the most critical law enforcement issues he sees facing our community are domestic violence, alcohol and drugs, and driving under the influence. Not surprisingly, Johnson also said drug and alcohol abuse is one of the main drivers behind domestic violence.

As for how the changing of the guard has affected the law enforcement department, said Johnson, “I would hope the community as a whole would realize that Sheriff Krebs has looked at the department and he is trying to address things in the department that have become weak, that have not been addressed in the past four years. We had to correct a lot of those issues.” Johnson said at the top of their list for reform was communication: with the community; with groups like Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services, EMS and fire; and inter-department communication with deputies on staff.

“Some organizations basically stopped hearing from us, and that was a real shame,” he said.

Johnson said that at the beginning of 2015, the San Juan Island EMS department was not making use of the sheriff’s boat for emergencies due to an earlier breakdown in communication.

“Now we have good communications, and a boat policy,” he said. “We also have training requirements for all the people that use that boat. We are back together as a full team.” Johnson said that he believes this year, deputies are handling calls and listening to the public better, adding, “I think the public is happier with us… We’re not perfect and we’re not going to solve all crimes. I wish we could. But we are definitely trying to do the right thing, and trying to do things the right way.”

In regard to domestic violence, Johnson said he and Krebs have been working to develop more effective policies and ways to follow state RCWs, as the existing county protocol was “way outdated.” He said discussions with DVSAS have helped the department better understand domestic violence dynamics so they can improve deputy response.

“Domestic violence can be a very dangerous call for us, but also affects so many people in our community,” said Johnson. “No matter the economic standing, color, background, [domestic violence] crosses all economic lines. We really have to keep our eyes open and be fair, listen to what’s going on and what’s being told to us.” He wants people to know that the law very specifically requires that, in any domestic violence situation, if the officer can establish who is the primary aggressor, that person must be arrested.

“To me, what makes police work very unique, is that we as police officers must protect the suspect as well as the victim, and that is kind of unique in our system,” he said. “When someone is accused of a crime, I work for him too, at that point. We have to protect both sides.”

He added, “Our ultimate hope is not to put someone in jail, although that is sometimes necessary, but how can we help this family so it doesn’t continue to happen, so they can live in peace and have a decent family experience?” Though women do sometimes offend, he said that in his experience, primary aggressors are male. As for drug abuse and drug sales in San Juan County, Johnson said, “It’s very difficult to work on those, because … the folks who are doing drugs know who we are, they know where we live, they go to school with our kids. We have to depend a lot on informants, because we can’t buy drugs from somebody unless they’re really stupid.” He said that community members sometimes express frustration with the process of working to apprehend drug abusers, but explained, “Even if they’re drug users, they have rights. We can’t just walk up and [search them]. We don’t want to become a police state; we have certain federal and state rules we have to follow… We have rights in this country to be secure in our homes, our cars, and in our person. Homes are very protected for obvious reasons, so nine times out of 10 it means a search warrant.” For the sheriff’s department to create a drug purchase sting operation requires extensive documentation, every step of which must follow protocol exactly and then be verified by a judge within 14 days.

“We have no favorites,” he said. “We will work on any drug case that we can; it’s a poison and it just irritates the heck out of me… It hurts our community.” He said it’s a poison that affects personal lives, families, work and spurs theft to feed the habit.

Johnson’s most intense crime memory from 2015 was drug-related: he said Benjamin Hanks, the driver arrested for the April hit-and-run attack on an Orcas Island high school girl, had smoked large amounts of marijuana prior to the accident.

“He looked at her, hit the gas, and hit her,” said Johnson, “and it was all because of drugs. All that pain that she is going through didn’t have to happen.” Hanks plead guilty to Vehicle Assault (Class B) with DUI.

Johnson’s final thoughts for the community: “We live in paradise. We really do, and if everyone just works together and thinks of each of us as part of the family, and if we think before we say things or do things, we truly will have a paradise here. Because I don’t want to live in Seattle; I want it to be the San Juan Islands. We need to take care of each other and watch each others’ backs. I’d like to ask the men of San Juan County to stand up and stop domestic violence. I would ask them to stand up and say, ‘Enough,’ to talk to their friends, and to say, ‘It’s not okay how you’re treating her.'”

– By Meredith M. Griffin, Special to the Journal