Sheriff:Justice system ‘stretched to limit’

Published on Thu, Aug 31, 2006 by Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Sheriff

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Sheriff: Justice system ‘stretched to limit’

By Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Sheriff

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office recently completed a strategic multi-year staffing plan to address issues related to growth, increased demand for services, traffic safety and homeland security issues.

The plan calls for reducing the size of the areas deputies patrol by creating three new patrol areas and adding neighborhood deputies in rapidly expanding urban growth areas.

At present, a single deputy sheriff generally patrols the 125 square mile area that includes Blaine, Birch Bay, Birch Point, Custer, Old Guide and surrounding communities.

This area is bounded on the north by the border, the south by Aldergrove and King Tut Roads, the east by the Guide Meridian and the west by the saltwater. Geographically, it is the smallest patrol area in the county, but still is larger than the combined size of all cities.
Growth in the area has been phenomenal. This is particularly true in Birch Bay where increased residential and commercial growth has caused the area to take on the characteristics of a municipality. As this occurs, it is important to keep pace with growing crime, traffic and public safety issues.

The plan calls for establishing a “neighborhood deputy” program in the Birch Bay area. This program was proven highly effective in the east county and involves assigning a deputy to work with the community in addressing neighborhood crime and traffic problems. The deputy will work a flexible work schedule and will be nimble enough to meet the challenge of emerging trends and issues.

The plan also calls for “splitting” the patrol area at Valley View Road so as to increase the “24/7” availability of deputies working the area. Other elements include enhancing traffic safety programs and targeting resources at repeat and career criminals.

Six years ago, an independent consultant described sheriff’s office law enforcement staffing as “grossly inadequate” and recommended hiring 30 new deputies. While recommended staffing levels were not achieved, a number of changes were implemented to increase deputy availability.

Neighborhood offices and technologies increase deputy availability in the communities served. Schedule changes ensure overlapping coverage during peak hours. A Foothills resident deputy program has reduced crime in the east county.

Enforcement directed towards methamphetamine laboratory eradication and neighborhood drug dealing has significantly reduced the presence of meth labs. Crime analysis provides timely data on crime trends and allows for a more efficient directing of resources.

Revitalized reserve deputy and volunteer programs serve as force multipliers. A special response team is now available to handle high-risk situations. Efforts targeting dangerous drivers have increased. Soon, a new jail work center will add 155 beds and more can be done about chronic misdemeanants and low-level felons.

These improvements could not have been accomplished without the support of the county council and county executive who made these programs a priority. However, more needs to be done.

A long held axiom is that with every deputy added, corresponding and expensive staffing increases must occur in other segments of the justice system.

The justice system is stretched to the limit. However, an adequately staffed sheriff’s office proactively directed towards preventing crime, can reduce the number of new offenders entering the system. Intervening with misdemeanor and juvenile offenders before they become hardened criminals is especially important. Focus must also be directed toward career criminals and ensuring that organized gangs do not gain a foothold.

This implementation of this plan is contingent upon approval of the county council. We recognize that this plan cannot be funded in a single budget cycle and will take a number of years to fully realize.

Members of the county council and the county executive have expressed interest in the plan and in developing strategies to ensure our community is adequately protected.

I look forward to working with them and the community we serve. The full plan can be reviewed at www.whatcomcounty.us/sheriff/index.jsp.