MARYSVILLE — Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney is disbanding three special policing units, including one responsible for homeless outreach, to bolster understaffed patrols amid warnings by local leaders of an impending public safety crisis.
The specialty teams, including the sheriff’s K-9 unit and another that pairs deputies with social workers, will be dissolved “for the foreseeable future,” freeing 11 deputies to take regular patrol positions, Fortney announced via Facebook this week.
“Staffing shortages, combined with criminals seemingly becoming more emboldened and more violent, has created a safety issue for our deputies,” he wrote in the Facebook post, adding that several deputies were recently assaulted on the job while waiting for more back-up units to arrive.
The move comes just days after The Daily Herald published commentary, signed by local mayors, warning of “a tide of rising crime in our cities.”
The sheriff and other local law enforcement leaders are painting an increasingly dire picture of the future of public safety in Snohomish County, pointing to vacant positions, rising crime and dwindling interest in law enforcement professions amid landmark legislative reform and anti-police sentiment.
While some statistics cited by local police suggest upticks in certain types of crime in Snohomish County, uniform crime data collected by the county’s enforcement agencies in 2021 has yet to be made public. Prior to the pandemic, Snohomish County’s crime rates had generally been on the decline since at least 2016, according to a February 2022 analysis of data reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation by local law enforcement.
Analysts contacted by The Daily Herald said it’s too soon to draw reliable conclusions about trends in crime, both locally and statewide — especially given that the pandemic, along with a sweeping suite of legislative reforms passed last year, has likely clouded the picture.
“There is always some year-to-year variability in the crime rates, and in the ups and downs across and within jurisdictions,” said Martina Morris, a retired University of Washington statistics and sociology professor who published the February analysis and has supported police reforms. “It’s important not to cherry pick the numbers, and instead to make an honest effort to distinguish a real signal from the noise.”
‘Why on earth’
When Fortney was elected at the end of 2019, he inherited the agency’s embedded social worker program, the Office of Neighborhoods. Since it was started in 2015, the unit has been celebrated as a progressive program that gets people connected to housing, mental health and addiction treatment.
The county executive’s office is working to figure out how to redeploy the four social workers that staffed the unit.
Without them, Penelope Protheroe said, nonprofits like her Angel Resource Connection in Lake Stevens will be strained to provide social services to homeless people.
Without the Office of Neighborhoods, “nonprofits like myself are the only ones transporting people to facilities — mental health facilities, outreach and detox facilities,” Protheroe said. “We don’t have the backup power they had, yet we are not stopping. The community is safer when the homeless are helped.”
Fortney said the move is critical, though, to help fill vacancies and ensure prompt response times.
“We reached a point recently, heartbreakingly so, where I had a decision to make,” Fortney said Wednesday at a packed town hall event at the Marysville Opera House, alongside two Republican County Council members and a top prosecutor. “We have to answer 911 calls at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.”
He blamed current staffing shortages on elected officials “demeaning one profession — that’s law enforcement.”
“Why on earth would anybody want to stay in the profession when you’re going through that? People are leaving in droves,” he said. “I would say the vast majority are leaving law enforcement to go to different states, where they feel supported and they can make a living for their family. You can probably guess which states they are.”
State Sen. John Lovick, a former Snohomish County sheriff, said he doesn’t buy the argument that people no longer want to become police officers. This year, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission has 11 classes, each with 30 recruits, who will soon be working for police agencies across the state, Lovick said. Ten of those recruits are set to work for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
“We’re bringing a lot of young recruits into the profession who really want to go out there and make a difference,” said Lovick, who once worked as a recruiter for the Washington State Patrol.
Those newcomers want to “change the culture” of policing, he said.
‘Severe staffing issues’
While Fortney lamented anti-police sentiment, he also noted support for his office has been strong in recent years, with the community offering random acts of kindness.
“Our deputies can barely buy a cup of coffee in the drive-thru anymore,” Fortney told the crowd Wednesday.
Even so, Fortney also said: “We’re getting ready to ask for quite a bit of stuff at the Sheriff’s Office this year — including manpower.”
He urged the crowd to show up to this fall’s budget hearings to support his requests.
“That in itself would be overwhelming to the Snohomish County Council,” Fortney said.
Council Chair Megan Dunn will help lead the county’s budgeting process, after the executive draws up his own recommendation. Last year, the county funded three more patrol deputies — seven less than the sheriff requested. Money for upgraded helicopters, a bigger South Precinct, three crime prevention officers and two new detectives was also approved.
This time around, Dunn said, “I think it’ll be an intense budget season.”
According to the sheriff’s office, last year was a record hiring year. Thirty-five deputies were hired. Twenty-nine were lost.
In December, a patrol staffing study cited “severe staffing issues” in the agency’s South Precinct. The report’s author, Matrix Consulting Group, recommended that the agency hire another 15 patrol deputies and two more sergeants to serve the precinct. At the time of the study, the South Precinct had 50 authorized deputy positions, seven of which were vacant.
In addition to bolstering South County patrols, the study also recommended hiring eight “civilian responders” to handle some lower-priority calls about traffic, parking, vandalism and theft. These “community service officers” could handle up to 11% of calls for service, freeing up time for sworn patrol deputies to focus on more serious crimes.
The study took into account data from 2018 to 2020, and focused on 2019 data to gauge future staffing needs based on the agency’s workload before the pandemic.
According to the study, calls for service “rose sharply” between 2018 and 2019, from about 108,800 to 119,700. Then, in 2020, that number fell to about 111,900, amid the pandemic.
“Outside of the abnormal year of 2020, trends suggest that calls for service will gradually increase each year,” says the report, provided to The Herald in response to a records request.
Concerns about patrol staffing are not new to the Sheriff’s Office.
Between 2010 and 2015, the county lost more than two dozen law enforcement positions dedicated to unincorporated areas, according to a previous audit, cited in a sheriff’s budget request last fall. Meanwhile, as the population increased, 911 calls rose, and crime did, too.
A 2016 staffing study by Etico Solutions echoed those findings, recommending the addition of 44 deputies, according to the recent budget request.
Local police departments, also facing staffing issues, are resorting to moves similar to the Sheriff’s Office.
In Mukilteo, Chief Cheol Kang said officers were pulled from special operations duties to fill patrol vacancies in the past two years. It’s limited the department’s ability to follow up on serious felony cases and some misdemeanors, he said in an email.
Like the sheriff, Kang pointed to increased property crime and behavioral health calls. The latter more than doubled in 2021; from 42 in 2020 to 91 calls last year.
In Marysville, Chief Erik Scairpon cited higher attrition rates since 2020. Last year, 16 officers left his department, replaced by nine new hires. So far this year, five officers have left and five have started. The department is budgeted for 80 officers and has 13 vacancies, Scairpon told The Daily Herald.
Similar to the sheriff’s office and many other agencies, Scairpon said his department also shut down its proactive policing unit to focus on patrol. He said it’s led to better response times.
In Edmonds, the police department’s dedicated traffic unit was cut in half and a special emphasis squad was disbanded and moved to patrol, Chief Michelle Bennett said in an interview. The department hopes to restaff those teams in the future.
The Lynnwood Police Department has done the same. Without shifting specialty assignments to patrol, “we wouldn’t be able to function,” Chief Jim Nelson said. “These are have-tos. Patrol has to be staffed.”
The department’s embedded social worker program almost got cut during the pandemic, but it was salvaged.
Now with new hires trickling in, Nelson sees “light at the end of the tunnel” to get back to what he considers adequate staffing amid a return to pre-pandemic crime levels.
“What is appropriate staffing that allows us to manage vacancies while keeping those units staffed?” the Lynnwood police chief asked. “That’s kind of the million-dollar question.”
Unlike those others, the Everett Police Department hasn’t had to get rid of specialty units to focus on patrol, said Chief Dan Templeman. But that said, patrol remains under-staffed, affecting responses.
Residents could have previously expected an officer on scene to reports of property crime, like a stolen bike, within an hour, Templeman said. Now it may take “two, or three or four hours.” They may be told to file a report online, instead.
Officials say police staffing isn’t a budget issue, but a recruiting issue. Many industries have seen a diminishing workforce in the past two years. That holds true in law enforcement, as well.
“We’re doing everything we can to hire,” Bennett said. “There’s few candidates and a lot of people that want them and it’s just really hard to fill those vacancies. … The support’s there. The money’s there. It’s a matter of having the candidates — qualified candidates.”
‘Look at the data’
On Wednesday, Matt Baldock, chief criminal deputy at the county prosecutor’s office, joined Fortney onstage. He described a clogged court system “inundated with violent crime.”
“It’s just a dire situation,” he said, with things like retail or property crime now given less attention.
At the same time, Fortney and other local police leaders have been fierce critics of a suite of police reform laws, passed in 2021, which they say have made communities less safe by limiting law enforcement’s ability to pursue suspects and make people more comfortable breaking the law.
State Sen. Lovick, a Democrat from Mill Creek, said lawmakers backing the bills “consulted leading scholars throughout the nation” when crafting the laws, which were intended to reduce the use of deadly force by police and increase accountability. More legislation has since passed, clarifying the intent of the reforms.
And while Fortney pointed to increasing crime rates, experts say more comprehensive — and higher quality — data are needed. And some existing data contradicts the sheriff’s claim that crime rates are rising.
“Right now, it’s still too early for us to be able to draw valid conclusions from the patterns,” said David Makin, an associate professor of criminology at Washington State University in Pullman. “What we’re experiencing is the concern over uncertainty — is this something that is limited? Or is this something that is long-term?”
Plus, Makin said, it’s hard to disentangle recent crime trends from factors like the pandemic and its many disruptions, as well as major police reforms. Makin serves on a police advisory committee for the city of Pullman, studies policing practices and has advocated for reform.
When there’s uncertainty, Makin added, “we tend to fall back on what we believe works — and some of that is just being tough on crime.”
The FBI has not yet released 2021 data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System, which provides detailed statistical breakdowns of crimes committed across the country.
And even that data set lacks key figures, such as information from 911 dispatchers and court systems that can help researchers contextualize how crime rates in any given community compare to other similar communities, Makin said.
“When you ask people, ‘Is crime increasing?’ Their answer is often, ‘Yes, it is,’” Makin said. “But when you look at the data, it’s trending down.”
From 2018 to 2020, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office reported declining crime, according to the FBI’s database.
Up until 2018, the sheriff’s office posted annual crime statistics on the county website. When asked where the public could access this data, spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe said the sheriff’s office did a video for its annual report in 2020 and the 2021 report has yet to be released. The 2020 year in review video contains some public safety data, including the number of people who died from drug overdoses and the number of search-and-rescue missions deployed. But unlike the discontinued annual reports, the video does not contain a breakdown of the year’s crime rates by category. It was unclear if a report, with a comprehensive list of the numbers of individual types of crimes in a year, has been made public by the sheriff’s office since Fortney was elected sheriff.
In addition, County Council Chair Dunn said, the sheriff’s office hasn’t released reports from the Office of Professional Accountability, which tracks complaints against officers and the resolutions of those complaints.
“So it’s very difficult to have an understanding of that department without all that information at hand,” she said.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ latest available annual crime report is for 2020. That report said violent crimes decreased by 3% compared to the year prior.
Data provided by the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office also suggests violent crime, as well as overall crime rates, are declining in the county. The number of cases police in Snohomish County referred to prosecutors in 2021 decreased by over 20% compared to 2020. The data shows that reports for violent crimes in the county were down by about 100 — from 726 reported in 2020 to 628 in 2021.
But more recently, headlines have warned of rising crime.
In the Seattle Police Department’s year-end report for 2021, the agency reported a 10% increase in crime overall, compared to 2020.
In the first quarter of 2022, the Everett Police Department reported more crimes than in the same period of 2021, according to FBI data published Monday. Violent crimes increased from 88 to 123. A similar increase was documented in property crime, from 1,102 incidents to 1,239. But those numbers are still down compared to five years ago, EPD figures show.
“Around the country, cities in the nation have been reporting higher incidents, especially of violent crime,” said Jacqueline Helfgott, director of Seattle University’s Crime and Justice Research Center. “In order to identify a long-term trend, we would need many more years (of data) than what we’ve seen.”
Helfgott, who teaches criminal justice theory, said ubiquitous coverage of high-profile violence like mass shootings can sway public perception of crime trends, too.
“Every time you look up, or every time a person is on their phone, they see some sort of violent crime,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t pay close attention to crime statistics might see that and think crime is rising much faster and much more intensely than it may be.”