April 20, 2024 12:20 pm

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Exclusive interview with new Snohomish County Sheriff Susanna Johnson

Lynnwood Times interview with Snohomish County Sheriff Susanna Johnson with Senior Reporter Kienan Briscoe on February 14, 2024. Lynnwood Times | Kienan Briscoe

EVERETT—Snohomish County’s new sheriff, Susanna Johnson, was ceremoniously sworn-in on January 2 at the PUD Auditorium by Superior Court Judge Patrick Moriarty. Johnson defeated incumbent Adam Fortney in the 2023 General Election with a vote of 51.5% (or a difference of 5,719 votes).

Sheriff Johnson
Susanna Johnson ceremoniously sworn-in as Sheriff on January 2, 2024, at the PUD Auditorium by Superior Court Judge Patrick Moriarty. SOURCE: Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.

Johnson, now the County’s 33rd sheriff, first joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1990 as a patrol deputy. Over her three-decade career, she rose through the ranks serving as a K-9 handler, detective, SWAT squad leader, detective sergeant, lieutenant, patrol captain and bureau chief of operations.

In 2019, Johnson retired from the Sheriff’s Office after nearly 30 years of service. In 2020, she joined the Bothell Police Department to serve as a lateral police captain before being promoted to deputy chief.

The Lynnwood Times sat down with Sheriff Johnson on Wednesday, February 14, at the Snohomish County Courthouse, to get to know her priorities for the office moving forward.

Although Johnson was ceremoniously sworn in on January 2, she officially took her oath prior to that. For about six weeks, from when they called the election to assuming office, the Sheriff’s Office staff were busy transitioning administration so that Johnson could “hit the ground running” for day one, she told the Lynnwood Times.

One of the first things she did as Sheriff was to review staffing at the office to understand what adjustments needed to be made, some minor budget tweaks, and meeting with community leaders, business leaders, and peers and other agencies (such as schools and superintendents) to better understand what the community’s needs are.

Sheriff Johnson
Sheriff Susanna Johnson

“That community component is the most important piece,” said Sheriff Johnson. “Instead of coming in and firmly deciding everything we’re going to do, we have our vision and then we needed to hear what’s important to our people – who we support.”

Sheriff Johnson never anticipated running for public office, but she shared that becoming sheriff felt like this is where she “was always meant to be.” She shared with the Lynnwood Times that it feels like she’s “returning home.”

“When you come into law enforcement you never know what path it would take you, and opportunities come and go – doors are opening and closing all the time – and the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to do all those things helps me to understand my responsibilities now,” said Sheriff Johnson.

Having served in a variety of roles throughout her law enforcement career, Sheriff Johnson shared that it allows her to understand the “downstream impacts” her decisions have on her staff with the betterment of service delivery in mind.

Sheriff Johnson was also a decorated graduate of the FBI National Academy, one of the most sought-after executive law enforcement trainings in the world with only “one half of one percent” having the opportunity to attend, she said. Through the program she learned the importance of professionalism and leadership, and building relationships with the community, above all else.

When Sheriff Johnson retired from law enforcement after serving for 30 years, for the short span of only five months, she missed all the things that drew her to the profession the first place, she shared. Mostly, she missed the service component and being part of a team.

“We’ve watched our society struggle for a number of years and the first thing people want to do when you see that is roll up your sleeve and help. I felt like I had more to give and it was a great opportunity to come back into law enforcement,” said Johnson. “I feel like I have another 30 [years] to give.”

Johnson returned to law enforcement to the Bothell Police Department, where she worked her way up from Captain to Deputy Chief. She shared with the Lynnwood Times the biggest difference working for a municipal agency and a county department is the access to resources, where in municipalities you have more resources for things like community outreach but at a county level you have more responsibilities and tools at your disposal (such as search and rescue, K9, and SWAT).

The biggest public safety issue facing Snohomish County, according to Sheriff Johnson, is behavioral health which to her encompasses housing instability as well as substance use disorder.

“I worked in narcotics as an undercover detective for eight and-a-half years, and we have a local task force regionally who’s done some amazing things, but I’ve never seen a drug like what we’re looking at now with fentanyl,” said Sheriff Johnson. “It’s overwhelming all of us – government and our social programs.”

Johnson said her strategy to combat the behavioral health crises in our county is to utilize community partners and resources, such as Office in Neighborhoods where she added another staff member back in January to bolster their ability to serve those struggling with behavioral health issues. She also plans to take advantage of the Prosecutor’s Office LEAD program.

“We have to keep reassessing what’s working but we also have to understand that we’re just part of the web and we need to complement the other resources that are out there,” said Johnson. “There is no single answer, this is very complex…for me personally it’s getting on committees, having a voice, and making sure we’re participating where we can form a solution while understanding this is not a policing solution.”

Separate from behavioral health, Sheriff Johnson’s number one priority is public safety, which she admitted seems obvious yet one of the most reoccurring issues the community articulated. During her outreach efforts, residents expressed to her that they simply do not feel safe in their day-today lives anymore. She plans to restore the region back to a state where the public begins to feel safe again by leveraging partnerships such as a regional property tax unit, which would come at no cost to taxpayers, she said. Another opportunity she said was partnering with the Everett Police Department on a pending grant which would allow both agencies to utilize technology to crack down on violent crime.

Other priorities of Sheriff Johnson’s include trust and transparency, employee investment, and organizational resiliency.

Outside of her time working in law enforcement, Sheriff Johnson enjoys outdoorsy activities such as hiking and camping, as well as spending time with her family and two dogs.

In closing to our interview Wednesday, Sheriff Susanna Johnson issued the following message to the community members of Snohomish County:

“I want to say how much I appreciate and how honored I am to be your elected Sheriff. I take the responsibility very seriously and we’re going to work very hard for you. I also want you to know that all of the people who work at the Sheriff’s Office have been working incredibly hard and staffing is coming up, morale is great, I was working with open arms, the union’s here have been fantastic, and we share common values in what we want to do in our community. We’re really excited for what the future holds.”

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