MARYSVILLE, Washing., June 8, 2022 – Over 100 people gathered in Marysville’s Opera House for a Snohomish County Public Safety Town Hall on Wednesday. The panel, comprised of Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney, Chief Criminal Deputy Matt Baldock, and Councilmen Sam Low and Nate Nehring, answered questions ranging from staffing shortages to police reform policies.
Law enforcement staffing shortage is “a real problem”
When asked about the staffing shortage among law enforcement departments in the county, Sheriff Fortney acknowledged that it is “a real problem,” noting that 30 deputies have left the Sheriff’s department over the last six months and believes it’s the natural consequences of recent years.
“When you spend two and half years demeaning one profession—that’s law enforcement—on a state-wide level, that is going to have an impact on that profession. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s law enforcement or another profession,” he said.
“People are leaving in droves [from] many of the offices in Snohomish County,” he continued. According to Fortney, officers are leaving to different states where they feel supported and can financially support their families.
Office of Neighborhoods deputies reassigned to patrol
The staffing issue is on the forefront of the community’s mind as Sheriff Fortney recently announced that he would be reassigning specialty unit officers to patrol to offset attrition. One of the units most impacted by this move is the Office of Neighborhoods (OON), a team of deputies and embedded social workers who connect with the county’s homeless population to break the cycle of homelessness.
Directly addressing the matter, Sheriff Fortney said, “The last thing I wanted to do was cut that out.” Listing officers’ safety and 9-1-1 response times as factors that led to the reassignments, he continued, “We have to answer 9-1-1 emergency calls. We have the responsibility to respond. I felt we haven’t been effective enough doing that.”
Fortney said he wants to be able to look back and know that he did everything he could to keep the public and his officers safe, even if it meant pulling officers away from the OON.
“I didn’t want to do it,” he concluded, “but I stand by my decision.” Fortney confirmed that social workers can still be called upon to align individuals in need with appropriate services.
In attendance at last night’s event was April Provost from Monroe, WA, whose life was changed three and half years ago, thanks to an embedded social worker from the OON.
“My significant other and I both were in active use and homeless,” she recalls, “and we were referred to one of the embedded social workers out in Monroe, and we decided that we needed to change.”
Provost and her partner feared their addiction would lead to long-term incarceration or even death. Thanks to the OON, they were able to start treatment, obtain housing vouchers, and get IDS and driver’s licenses.
“It gave us a start to really recreate our lives,” she said. Provost is now a Peer Outreach Specialist for Ideal Option and has been helping people who struggle with addiction make the transition back into a stable life.
When she heard the OON was losing team members, Provost said she understood it the rationale behind the decision but hopes the office and keep going. “It’s really sad because I think this is a really crucial time when we need these services. But at the same time, I understand that it’s important that we keep our officers and communities safe, but I hope we can find a way, as a community, to keep these offices up and running.”
Provost will be meeting with Sheriff’s office in the near future to brainstorm ways to keep the program alive.
Sheriff Fortney was adamant about continuing those services as well. “If someone wants help in Snohomish County they can get it,” he said. “If you leave with anything tonight, it should be that.”
Public safety, police, and policy
A question regarding police reform laws was addressed to the panel’s two Councilmen. Nate Nehring called the vehicular pursuit law an “outstanding issue.” The law (RCW 10.116.060) places several parameters on when police can engage in vehicle pursuits.
“It’s very difficult for police officers to pursue criminals,” said Councilmen Nehring after citing instances in the county of criminals breaking into stores only to drive by police officers knowing they wouldn’t be pursued. “It is a big problem.”
Nehring said he’d like to see changes to the law and mentioned how Senate Bill 5919, which would revise the vehicular pursuit law, was never brought to a vote last session. “It’d be a good start for us if we could see that bill pass next session,” he added.
Councilman Sam Low spoke about issues that have resulted from the Blake Decision, a piece of legislation that essentially decriminalized simple drug possession charges. “Not everybody that does drugs are criminals,” Low began, “but the state changing the laws to basically make it okay for people to do drugs, and our deputies and police officers now can’t encourage them to get treatment and get help, it’s made it very difficult.”
Low later added that he and other leaders are reaching out to the governor to hold a special session to resolve the Blake Decision issues, saying, “we can’t let another session in Olympia go by without getting this fixed.”
Prosecutor’s pandemic practices slowly returning to normal
When COVID-19 came to Snohomish County, the Prosecutor’s Office relax its position regarding pre-trial detention of non-violent offenders to minimize the jail population and thereby control the virus’s spread.
“We focused our efforts on designating jail cells to offenders who posed a threat in the community,” Chief Criminal Deputy Matt Baldock explained. “The trade-off is that there were a lot of people who would have otherwise been in jail awaiting trial on [non-violent] offenses that were no longer in jail.”
Baldock was able to confirm there gradual return to normalcy is underway, and that the Prosecutor’s Office is beginning to jailing certain non-violent offenders who either have repeat offenses or are not showing up for their court dates.
Sheriff Fortney later commented that, as a result of these and other COVID-19 preventive practices, the Snohomish County Jail didn’t have a single Covid outbreak.
The community rallies around public safety
Panelists frequently acknowledged the excellent turnout for the night’s event, with so many residents showing up that there were no open seats on the Opera House’s first floor. After the event, Councilman Low told the Lynnwood Times, “I was encouraged by the turnout. It’s clear that the community cares about public safety. It’s clear that they’re paying attention.”