Deputies plead for more help on the streets

It’s budget time again, and the Island County Sheriff’s Office is pushing for more personnel.

It’s budget time again, and the Island County Sheriff’s Office is pushing for more personnel.

In a full-page message to county residents in Island publications last week, including The Record, the sheriff’s deputies’ union laid out a case for new hires.

And Monday, Sheriff Mark Brown said he has presented his “wish list” to Island County Commissioners, urging them to follow the eight-year plan he presented last year that includes 13 more positions, and to allow him to hire at least four officers in 2009.

“I understand that these are tough economic times,” Brown said. “But I certainly feel we need more manpower.”

In its newspaper message, the Island County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild said “we all know that there is crime in every community … We can and must do more if we are to keep our crime rate low, keep our deputies safe and protect our citizens.”

The guild message cautioned that statistics showing a general decrease in the worst violent crimes “can instill a false sense of security.” It said violent crime in the county actually is up 24 percent from last year.

But the biggest increases, it said, are in violations such as fraud, which have risen 1,400 per cent between 1998 and 2008.

The union message also said:

• Island County has an unincorporated population larger than those of 29 of the state’s 39 counties, including Skagit, but a staffing rate of only 0.8 deputies per 1,000 residents, lower than 33 other counties and well below the state average of 1.41.

• To meet the state average, Island County would have to hire 32 more deputies.

• The Island County department handles more calls than Skagit County, but has 18 fewer deputies.

• In 1998, Island County had 40 positions in the criminal division. Now there are 43, only a 7-percent increase. In 1998 there were eight detectives, now there are six. Meanwhile, Island County population continues to increase.

• Island County gets 25 percent more 911 calls than it did in 1998.

• At times during the day there may be only one deputy on duty in some areas, severely hindering response times and creating a possibly dangerous situation for the officer.

“To provide a coverage level of only two deputies per shift in each area (24 hours a day, seven days a week) we would have to hire at least

11 deputies right now,” the union said.

Far from being overstaffed and overpaid, the Island County department “is one of the most underfunded and understaffed sheriff’s offices in the state of Washington,” the message concludes.

Brown said his current budget is about $5 million for patrol and investigations, and $2 million for jail operations.

He said he would like additional funding for four new positions; two deputies (one to be hired in January, the other in June) and two jail personnel.

He said that last year he asked the county for three new deputies, and received funding for one.

“I don’t want to take one step forward and two steps back,” said Brown, who has been sheriff since January 2007.

Brown said that while many crimes are down, service calls, especially traffic calls, are up.

“You have to respond to the needs of the citizens,” Brown said. “One thing that scares me is that people will stop calling; they’ll say what’s the use, they’re not going to come anyway.”

“I don’t want the situation to depreciate, Brown added. “If we depreciate, it will affect our way of life.”

Brown said his budget request will be taken up by Island County commissioners on Oct. 13. He said he has planned a series of community meetings leading up to that date to outline the needs of his department.

The South End session will be 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23, at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland.

Roy Jacobson can be reached at 221-5300 or rjacobson@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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