The two largest law enforcement offices on Whidbey Island are facing the loss of significant numbers of commissioned officers this year.
At the same time, police reforms in the state are making the job more complicated and confusing, which may have contributed to some of the staffing issues.
Oak Harbor Police Chief Kevin Dresker recently told city council members that the department will lose eight to 10 officers — in a department of 28 commissioned officers — from May of this year until June of next year. Four or five of the officers will have left by the end of August.
For some of the officers, the significant changes in laws regarding policing this year were “a piece” of the reason they are leaving the department or law enforcement altogether, Dresker said.
“These changes do have a cost and they do affect staffing,” he said. “They will have an impact on public safety.”
Island County Sheriff Rick Felici explained that the department lost five deputies this year in a department of 42 commissioned officers. In addition, two corrections deputies left the jail.
Felici said there was a mixture of different reasons for deputies leaving. One person retired, another took a law enforcement job elsewhere and others left law enforcement altogether.
One new deputy decided the job just wasn’t for him after a short time with the department, the sheriff said.
The office, he said, is hiring quality replacements as quickly as possible.
Felici said none of the deputies cited the changes in law regarding policing as reasons for leaving in their exit interviews. Still, he said, he imagines the uncertainties associated with the law changes are on the “con” side of the ledger for people deciding whether to stay in law enforcement.
Felici said most law enforcement officials in the state aren’t opposed to the goals of the police reforms, but the lack of clarity in the laws is causing serious concerns.
The Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs released a statement last year that said meaningful reform was needed in law enforcement to counter racial inequality, but the association and law enforcement officials across the state are now calling for clarification.
The laws, most of which have already gone into effect, are considered to be the most ambitious police reform legislation in the nation and were enacted in response to calls for increased police accountability and greater equality in law enforcement. They cover virtually all aspects of policing, from the use of force to de-escalation to training requirements.
Law enforcement officials, however, remain uncertain about what the new laws mean or require, leading to discrepancies around the state in how officers might respond to such situations as active crime scenes, welfare checks and mental health crises.
Dresker noted that lawmakers and the state Attorney General’s Office agree discrepancies and confusion exist in the laws.
The state Attorney General is working on opinions and model policing policies, while other questions may be settled by the courts.
In the meantime, officers are being left in the dark.
“This is not the right way to do business,” he said.
Dresker pointed out that the new laws limit what actions police can take when responding to the scene of a crime or pursuing a suspect.
An officer now needs a higher standard of proof — probable cause — in order to detain suspects or pursue vehicles.
Felici noted that many of the laws don’t really change policies for most departments. His deputies, for example, have long been practicing de-escalation and limited use of force.
He said they will continue doing common sense police work while the details are worked out.
“We will continue acting from a perspective of public safety,” he said, “not from a perspective of politics or feelings.”