Budget proposal prompts calls to defund sheriff’s office

Reform advocates sparred with police supporters for hours during a Snohomish County Council meeting.

Snohomish County Councilman Sam Low

Snohomish County Councilman Sam Low

EVERETT — A Snohomish County budget amendment on Wednesday became a flashpoint in a national debate over whether money that’s now devoted to law enforcement should instead be put toward other programs that support community health and welfare.

In more than six hours of public testimony via online video conference, dozens of local activists called on the Snohomish County Council to defund the Sheriff’s Office. Other county residents shot back, arguing that the agency that performs what is perhaps the government’s most important function — protecting its citizens — is already stretched thin.

The council unanimously passed a budget revision meant to offset the fiscal toll of the coronavirus crisis. Under the measure, county departments will face across-the-board cuts of 3.5 percent, instead of 4.25 percent, as was originally proposed.

Councilman Sam Low drew the ire of activists when he pitched amendments to the spending plan that would have partially exempted the sheriff’s office from the full 4.25 percent cuts that the other county departments would have faced.

“The national conversation right now is about how ineffective policing has been in ensuring public safety — about how police officers in every department have been brutalizing citizens with impunity for decades,” public defender Erika Bleyl told the council. “Yet during this time, we are hearing that Snohomish County instead proposes to shield the Sheriff’s Department. This is completely reprehensible.”

The controversy comes just two days after Bleyl and many other 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 to the council 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.

Activists have asked local governments across the country to divest from police agencies as part of a nationwide movement protesting the deaths of people of color who have died at the hands of police — including George Floyd, an African American man who died May 25 while in custody in Minnesota. Four Minneapolis police officers have been charged in his death.

Sheriff Adam Fortney urged residents in a Wednesday morning post to his Facebook page to contact their county council representative and let them know that “less police on the streets is not the solution to this budget deficit!”

“We have cooperated fully with county government and have cut anywhere we can to get where we need to be. We are doing our part! I am drawing the line at losing deputies off the street but that is what the ‘defund’ the police folks want to happen and up until this point that is the only voice council is hearing,” Fortney wrote.

The county’s general fund, which was $268 million for 2020 before the budget was revised, relies heavily on sales tax. Staff are predicting a nearly $27 million shortfall this year due to the public health crisis.

Caught in the crosshairs is a $250,000 study that was supposed to take a comprehensive look at the county’s law and justice system and make recommendations for reform. The study, which was slated to be completed by the end of this year, was nixed under the revised budget.

In total, law and justice — including district and superior court — accounts for about 71 percent of the county’s general fund budget in 2020. The sheriff’s office and jail, specifically, make up about 42 percent.

James Norris, a leader with the union that represents employees of the sheriff’s corrections bureau, told the council on Wednesday that vacancies at the agency are already saving the county $3 million. Any furloughs have to be backfilled by other employees working overtime, which costs money, too, he said.

“We’re already spread thin,” Norris said. “We’re already at minimum staffing.”

Many residents who spoke against funding cuts to the sheriff’s office said there’s already a dearth of patrols in rural areas of the county. Others pointed to the civil unrest in Seattle, saying law enforcement is important to keep order.

“I think the council needs to sit back and say, what is your number one priority? And that is to protect your citizens,” said Mary Kay Voss, a former Mill Creek city councilwoman. “This is not the time to cut any kind of police service. You keep every single one of those officers on the street.”

The final budget amendment was a compromise that councilmembers agree would save all departments, including the sheriff’s office, from layoffs, said Chairman Nate Nehring.

Misinformation spread online about what exactly would be discussed at the meeting, council members Jared Mead and Megan Dunn said after the vote. A larger conversation still needs to take place to address the calls to defund police, they said.

“We’re going to do this again. And we’re going to do it the right way. And we’re going to have some reforms,” Mead said.

In all, more than 100 people spoke. At one point, council staff had to scramble to update the county’s Zoom license to accommodate more than 300 people who were trying to tune into the virtual meeting.

Some of those who rallied for cuts to the sheriff’s office said Low’s proposed amendments were a “slap in the face” to local activists.

Others blasted Fortney. Residents repeatedly mentioned his reinstatement of deputies who were previously fired for allegedly violating department policy, including one man who is seen in a recent video punching a suspect lying on the ground. They also referenced the sheriff’s refusal to enforce the governor’s stay-at-home order amid the coronavirus crisis.

“The sheriff’s office has not shown that they’ve earned the trust of our community to warrant this exemption,” said Hillary Moralez, who lives in Low’s district. “If everybody else has to tighten their belts, I don’t understand why our sheriff is exempt.”

Many residents also called for more money for public health programs and social services to help vulnerable citizens.

“We need to put social services and the health and well being of our community members as the priority of our agendas, especially communities of color,” said Kristina Jorgensen, an Arlington resident who identified herself as a person of color. “We need housing, mental health services and domestic violence services for both victims and perpetrators, substance abuse treatment and other skill-building services that heal people, not punish them.”

Jorgenson said she works with incarcerated people and was once imprisoned herself.

“I could share with you hundreds of stories of injustice,” she said. “But we don’t have time to hear that today.”

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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