EVERETT — Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers unveiled a billion-dollar 2021 budget proposal last week that would set aside up to $500,000 to equip sheriff’s deputies with body cameras, marking the first funding commitment for a slate of improvements he introduced over the summer in an effort to make the local justice system more just.
If the half-million dollar allocation passes the County Council’s muster, the money would start the process of purchasing the cameras, training officers how to use them and establishing a system to store the footage. The first deputies to get them would have them by the end of next year. The full rollout would be gradual, Somers said.
“Better transparency, increased civility, more corroborating evidence and quicker resolutions to citizen complaints are some of the benefits of law enforcement body worn camera programs, according to the National Institute of Justice,” Somers said on Tuesday, during his annual State of the County speech, delivered via Zoom. “We know it is not simple to implement, but other large law enforcement agencies have been able to do it, and we look forward to making it work for us.”
Activists in the county and beyond have insisted that a complete overhaul is the only way to truly fix a justice system that puts undue burden on people of color. But Somers’ spending plan would largely maintain the status quo — even with across-the-board reductions needed to offset sales tax losses fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The budget for the sheriff’s office, not including the jail, would shrink roughly 3 percent.
Sheriff Adam Fortney, who has protested that significant cuts would threaten public safety, praised Somers’ proposal in a post to his Facebook page this week.
“If there was any community concern that his recommended budget would defund our office, I think those worries can be put to rest,” the sheriff said. “Through his actions and collaboration these past few months, Executive Somers and his team have shown that they are dedicated to prioritizing public safety in Snohomish County.”
He told The Daily Herald in a written statement that he supports body cameras as “an additional layer of transparency” between deputies and the residents they serve.
“It’s too early to know what it will cost to get a full pilot program up and running, but we have started the conversations,” he said.
Under Somers’ plan, the sheriff’s office would still be far and away the top spender of the county’s roughly $265 million general fund — despite recent calls to redistribute taxpayer money spent on law enforcement to other programs and services that address issues at the root of criminal behavior.
Somers said in an interview the county is taking a “slow and steady” approach to criminal justice reform and carefully assessing the next steps. He stressed the need to strike a balance between funding law enforcement and human services.
His proposal also includes $500,000 more to train county employees on diversity and inclusion, and for unspecified efforts to chip away at institutional barriers to equity.
Some of the money in the spending plan could be shifted to conduct a comprehensive law and justice system study — a project that was supposed to be done this year but fell victim to coronavirus-induced cuts.
“I think the resources I put forward in my proposal are a good start and will give us plenty to do in the next year,” Somers said. “We are going to keep these issues front and center and start to make some progress on them.”
The spending plan earmarks $200,000 for new software to manage public defenders’ cases and collect data that could help inform future improvements to the cash bail system, which has been criticized for keeping poor people in jail simply because they cannot afford to get out.
Bail reform was another major component of the platform Somers outlined in June to combat “institutional and systematic racism.”
Prosecutor Adam Cornell, who was initially blindsided by the announcement, said on Friday that Somers’ office still has not approached him to discuss the reforms.
Overhauling cash bail would likely be complicated and costly and require changes to state law and potentially court rules, Cornell said. However, he emphasized his support for exploring ways to make the justice system more equitable.
“Meaningful social or criminal justice reform, at any level — whether at the state level or the county level — can’t happen without the collaboration of all of the stakeholders being at the table,” Cornell said. “We cannot do meaningful social or criminal justice reforms in silos.”
A community police oversight board was also a major element of Somers’ racial justice plan. His office hasn’t yet submitted a formal proposal to the County Council, he said, but he hopes to establish the body by the end of the year.
Just days before Somers proposed the sweeping reforms, local public defenders called on the council to redistribute half of the sheriff’s office budget into housing, counseling and other social services. They demanded in a two-page letter that the county invest in a range of programs that would help people struggling with addiction and mental health issues, as well as those being released from jails, psychiatric institutions or inpatient substance abuse treatment centers.
In Somers’ proposal, the sheriff’s office would continue to use more than 40 percent of the county’s primary operating fund. The sheriff’s budget would decrease from $55.5 million in 2020 to nearly $53.9 million next year. However, the sheriff’s Corrections Bureau would spend about $1 million more than was budgeted for last year, for a total of $57.1 million in 2021, to meet terms reached during recent negotiations with an employee union.
The County Council will begin budget deliberations on Monday, when various departments will start presenting their individual needs. A final spending plan will be adopted in late November.
There are doubts about whether body cameras ultimately result in more law enforcement officers being held accountable for misconduct, however, said public defender Erika Bleyl. She drafted the June letter demanding that the county divest from the Sheriff’s Office.
Oversight boards, too, often lack the authority to impose penalties when wrongdoing is discovered.
“The reason why we’re having this conversation nationally about defunding the police is because those things have been tried in various different states and cities in various different iterations,” Bleyl said. “The reality is that they don’t work.”
“We need to start rethinking what actually promotes public safety,” she added. “When you look at the data for that, there’s empirical research that suggests that social services is where investments need to be happening.”