Orcasites question sheriff candidates at forum
October 20, 2010 · Updated 9:43 AM
Orcas islanders kept discussion hopping at a recent candidates forum at the Eastsound fire hall, peppering would-be sheriffs Brent Johnson and Rob Nou with thoughtful questions.
What do you see as top issues in San Juan County?
Nou cited drug abuse as “a huge concern, and pretty epidemic throughout the community,” saying that to follow up on community tips, he would put uniformed men and marked cars in front of suspected drug houses, being “painfully present to try to deter that behavior.”
Part of the difficulty, he said, is that “knowing, and being able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in court is a different matter.”
Johnson cited drug and alcohol abuse and their effects in the community, including sexual assault against young women. He spoke of his ideal approach as a triangle, with health on one side, education on the other side, and law enforcement on the bottom. Johnson cited parking in front, “knock and talks,” and presence as a way to interrupt deals in process when there is not enough evidence to prosecute.
Training of law enforcement officers
Both candidates cited transportation as a major difficulty that increases costs for training county law enforcement officers, and suggested bringing qualified trainers to the county for group sessions to meet the state mandate of 24 hours of annual in-service training for each officer.
“What I see a lot, I like to call it the shotgun approach to training, and that's what we've been doing for the last few years,” said Johnson. “It's not always what the best training is, it's what the most inexpensive training is.”
Johnson said he hasn't had a performance evaluation in six years, and said evaluations are important not only to administer discipline, but so that command staff can determine what types of further training are needed. He said there are people in the county qualified to train, including Prosecutor Randy Gaylord and “our fire department folks.”
He also said the department needs training on taking statements, saying, “The simple process of taking a complete and thorough statement is really lacking, I have to say... I send out these emails that say, I need the statement this way...so I'm not always well liked by some of the deputies, there's no doubt about that.”
Enforcement of Orca protection laws
Both candidates agreed that resident orcas are valuable local resources that must be protected. Johnson said it costs $1000 per day to patrol local waters; “You've also got to get somebody who can identify those doggone whales,” he said, because only resident whales are protected, not transients. He noted a citizen's suggestion to form a non-profit that could help fund whale patrols 10 days per year, while Nou suggested seeking grants from NOAA, the Washington state department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management.
What role will your leadership play in the future of safe medicine return?
“I wholeheartedly support (the current prescription drug takeback) program,” said Johnson, who said prescription drug abuse has gone up 400 percent. “We're trying to buy some containers to put outside of the stations so people can turn their stuff in any time, no questions asked.”
Nou said the current prescription drug takeback program is “absolutely a wonderful thing... absolutely vital.”
Have either of you had to develop and live within a budget (not your home)?
Johnson spoke of administering a $350,000 budget for a DARE program in Albuquerque, involving grants and private donations. He said as treasurer of the DVSAS board, he is partially responsible to oversee the budget, and as chairman of the county veterans' advisory board, he works with county commissioners on a monthly basis to determine allocation of nearly $100,000 per year.
Nou said in his four years as police chief of Burns, Oregon, he had to prepare and manage a budget. He oversaw a systematic replacement program for the sheriff's fleet of 40 patrol cars and put together a grant budget for enforcement programs in Oregon as well.
“I kind of get the idea of, you know, revenue in and expense out and trying to keep all that in balance,” he said.
This is a county of islands... How do you envision as the sheriff reaching out to all the islands?
“It's totally my intention to maintain a regular presence outreaching to both staff and community on the other islands, if no other reason than to keep a pulse on what's going on,” said Nou. “Having spent the last two and a half years living and working on Lopez, it kinda feels by our selves over there... occasionally it would be nice to see the boss. Be that my the sergeant, the sheriff or the undersheriff coming over and just seeing how things are doing... you know, have some visibility, both with staff and also with the community... I totally understand the feeling of the outer islands that we're not necessarily getting the attention or maybe not even the resources that we deserve or that we're paying for...
Through this campaign process it's been absolutely invaluable to me to get to know folks in the other communities, to listen to what the concerns are...”
“That's one of the weak points that Bill had, there's no doubt about that,” said Johnson. “He hasn't gone to the other islands to see his employees, but that can change... I'm going to be going to the other islands... I think the sheriff can have a soapbox that they need to be on, and not only use that soapbox to help other organizations within that island, for example, Orcas Rec is trying to get off the ground. I think the sheriff needs to be here and talk to groups, and go to the island market and things like that, and let them know how important this organization is to the department, not only to the islands but to also to the department.”
Distribution of resources and deputies between the islands and Friday Harbor
The town of Friday Harbor pays $300,000 per year for sheriff's department services, said Johnson, in addition to “911 dollars.”
“The call volume is twice that of Orcas and probably three to four or five times on Lopez, so that's why you have that many deputies over on Friday Harbor,” he said.
“It's more cost effective for the town itself, and it makes a lot of sense to have a single law enforcement agency serving the county,” said Nou, citing ease of information sharing and centralized records. “The flip side of that is there is only one agency serving San Juan County.. we don't have state patrol.” Nou also noted that the only county jail, the 911 call center, and the sheriff's physical office all reside on San Juan island, drawing more resources.
Regarding the county's digital infrastructure, what are your highest priorities?
“One of the things that should be a no-brainer is communications,” said Nou. “Our radio system that we're using is voice only... way behind the curve. I think there is … an expectation when we make a traffic stop that, well you can just go punch this into your computer – well, my computer's on my desk back in the office, so I'm relying on voice communication, and then dispatch is doing the computer work.” Compounding the problem, he said, are dead spots on all three islands that render communication impossible.
Nou described responding to a call a few months ago. Upon apprehending the suspect, he couldn't contact dispatch, so he had to leave the man and drive to a nearby spot where his radio worked before he could run the man's information and discover there were two Oregon fugitive felony warrants out for his arrest.
“Now I've got to go find him again - well, he already knows he's wanted,” said Nou. “So it kinda puts us at a real practical disadvantage sometimes... On Lopez especially, there's little spots I refer to as phone booths, where my phone might actually work, and other spots where my radio might actually work...those are probably the biggest challenges.”
Johnson spoke about the current situation involving radio frequencies, and said he'd like to see an improvement in the department's CSI technology equipment.
“As a detective, my CSI is two bags from King's Market," he said. "I want to make that a well-stocked CSI bag, with fingerprint materials and DNA collection type items. We don't have any of that. I went to DNA school, I had to ask, 'How can a poor department take DNA?' .” Johnson said he was instructed to use tape, envelopes, q-tips from the drug store, and other readily available items in lieu of expensive lab kits.
Johnson urged attendees to note his experience handling 40,000 calls per month in Albuquerque, saying, "No one else in this department has experienced anything like it; no one. You have to learn by doing it.” He continued, “The sheriff needs to be a soapbox; I believe in the power of the office, I believe that he has the power to influence things in our community, and I believe that he can use the power of the office to help organizations like Island Rec, Orcas Rec, because you're gonna make it pass, and American Red Cross, the coalitions for all the islands, domestic violence sexual assault services, those are important things to be involved in because one, it can lower our call volume, and two, it can lower our costs. Because if those programs are strong, it means we have less calls to go to, and we can work on other issues.”
He said the department's current standard operating procedures, from 1995, are “really unacceptable,” saying, “We can't become nationally accredited because we can't afford it, but that doesn't mean our standard operating procedures can't be up to those levels when we rewrite them. And then when we get money... we can apply and become nationally accredited ourselves.”
Nou also mentioned the importance of an updated policy and procedures manual, and concluded by saying, “I was hardwired from the factory to be a law enforcement officer.”
Let the chips fall where they may
Nou and Johnson both assured curious voters that their professional relationship will continue humming along harmoniously, regardless of which man becomes the next San Juan County sheriff.