Snohomish County Sheriff candidates Adam Fortney Susanna Johnson during an Everett Council of Neighborhoods forum on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Snohomish County Sheriff candidates Adam Fortney Susanna Johnson during an Everett Council of Neighborhoods forum on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Fortney, Johnson face off in expensive, contentious sheriff’s race

Nearly $400,000 has been spent and barbs have been thrown as Snohomish County looks to pick its next sheriff.

EVERETT — What kind of sheriff does Snohomish County want?

That’s the question before voters in an expensive, hotly contested and deeply personal race between incumbent Sheriff Adam Fortney and challenger Susanna Johnson, the deputy police chief in Bothell.

Fortney, a former patrol sergeant in the K-9 unit, wears cowboy boots and a belt buckle adorned with a sheriff star. His tough-on-crime message has catered to a conservative base. He contends his work speaks for itself, pointing to policy changes applauded by police unions, a new youth program and stronger partnerships with business owners, especially on his former beat in south county.

Fortney has doubled down on defending some of his most controversial decisions, such as rehiring deputies fired under the previous sheriff and publicly criticizing Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home mandate at the height of the pandemic.

“I’m not afraid to give you my positions and I’ve suffered the consequences of that as well,” Fortney said at a recent event in downtown Everett. “We all have that right. I have opened my mouth and stood up. I don’t want want to be the elected official that’s just meek and quiet all the time.”

Johnson is a career cop, too. She is more measured. She has spent three decades with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, ending her tenure third in command as bureau chief of operations. She has touted the endorsements of all five living former sheriffs.

Johnson believes Fortney’s coziness with the constitutional sheriff movement, as well as “some of the early decisions” he made, have badly damaged public trust. She said her opponent signing onto a letter pledging to protect the “Second Amendment” in the face of gun control legislation, for example, signals “to some of our community members that the current sheriff is not going to enforce all the laws.”

“I still talk to people who don’t feel comfortable calling 911 in this county,” she said, “because they’re not sure who’s going to show up.”

The campaign has been one of the most expensive in state history for a county sheriff. The two campaigns have raised roughly $400,000: Fortney about $191,000 and Johnson about $208,000.

Fortney is endorsed by the Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, as well as most police officer unions across the county. Johnson is endorsed by the Snohomish County Corrections Guild, as well as the Tulalip Tribes, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility and numerous labor unions.

‘The passion and energy for the job’

Johnson has held almost every rank in the sheriff’s office: patrol deputy, detective, K-9 handler, SWAT squad leader, sergeant, lieutenant, captain and bureau chief.

She’s running to restore community trust, she said.

“We’re going to try and catch the crooks. We’re going to try and prevent crime,” Johnson said. “But none of those things matter if our community doesn’t trust us.”

On Jan. 1, 2020, she retired from the sheriff’s office, even pulling in retirement checks for a few months, she said.

“I quickly missed the work and realized I had a lot more that I wanted to give this career,” Johnson wrote in an email.

That led her back to police work in Bothell.

As sheriff, she would push for a three-tiered plan to prevent crime through partnerships with the community and targeted patrols, rather than reactive triaging. Transparency and improving public trust are the major promises of her campaign.

Fortney campaigned on more transparency in 2019, too. And he was highly critical of policies under the sheriff at the time, Ty Trenary.

“I could not stand the direction of public safety in Snohomish County, that’s why I ran in 2019,” Fortney said earlier this month. “I don’t want to be mean or anything like that, but I absolutely believe it reverts back.”

He added: “I don’t think (Johnson) has the passion and energy for the job.”

Fortney is now running on his record and a campaign motto.

“The principle of ‘accountability with compassion’ is centered on the reality that law enforcement alone cannot solve complex societal issues like drugs, mental illness, and homelessness,” Fortney wrote on his campaign website. “We must play a role in helping people change their lives, but we cannot simply arrest our way out of these problems.”

On that point, Johnson agrees wholeheartedly. Part of her pitch is working to make neighborhoods more resilient to crime by partnering with social organizations. In her eyes, crime will not decrease unless root causes are addressed. In that area, she feels Fortney has failed.

“The sheriff’s office has kind of reduced some of the partnerships they used to have,” Johnson said.

‘A ripple effect’

Fortney grew up in Brier. After he graduated from Lynnwood High School, he signed up with the U.S. Navy.

Then he became a cop. He was a longtime sheriff’s sergeant and president of the deputies’ union when he decided to run against Trenary, largely because of a policy Fortney described as “catch and release.” Suspects arrested on infractions would get dropped off where the deputies caught them in the first place, because “releasing them through a sally port door into Everett is not appropriate,” according to a memo from a sheriff’s captain in early 2019.

Fortney said Johnson was ultimately responsible for the policy, and that he changed it on his first day in office. The policy, he said, saw some misdemeanor suspects turned away from jail for medical reasons, “which included being under the influence of drugs.”

“The reason I changed this policy is because it is not fair to the men and women who do the difficult job of public safety every single day in our county and to a greater extent, it is not fair to the crime victims in our community that do not get to see justice when a criminal suspect is caught,” Fortney wrote in an email.

Johnson sees it differently.

“When there were restrictions to booking some people into the jail back then, low-level offenses, such as trespass and misdemeanor theft, would not always get booked into the jail,” Johnson wrote in an email. “Any crime of violence could always get booked into the jail, and officers always had an ability to ask for an exception on a lower, non-violent offense” — meaning there was “a process for them to get booked anyway.”

Fortney’s first campaign resonated. He beat Trenary with 55.38% of the vote in 2019.

Then, almost immediately upon taking office, the new sheriff faced media scrutiny for a series of controversies.

Fortney rehired three deputies fired by his predecessor. Trenary wrote that he fired Matt Boice and Evan Twedt in 2019 for carrying out a warrantless search and covering it up — though Fortney fundamentally disagreed with the former sheriff’s conclusions. The third rehired deputy, Art Wallin, killed an Edmonds man after a pursuit, leading to a $1 million settlement to the family of Nickolas Peters in 2020.

All three deputies worked alongside Fortney when he was a patrol sergeant, and Fortney was part of the pursuit where Wallin shot Peters, pulling the suspect’s girlfriend out of the stopped truck by her hair.

“When he rehired some folks that were fired for dishonesty, that created a ripple effect within that agency, within the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office,” Johnson said in an interview. “We’ve spoken for decades: ‘We will hold our own accountable, and know that if we’re dishonest, we lose our badge and gun.’ For him to rehire some, actually, has been very difficult for the people that wear that uniform.”

This week, Fortney posted on Facebook about a decision from the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission in August over deputy Wallin’s use of force and his subsequent firing.

“WSCJTC has determined the evidence in this case is not sufficient to establish Mr. Wallin’s use of force more likely than not violated state law and/or SCSO policies and procedures,” the letter reads.

In January 2020, Fortney also removed so-called “black boxes” from patrol cars, which captured vehicle location, direction of travel, speed, braking and airbag deployment, as well as the use of emergency lights and seat belts. Trenary ordered the boxes to be installed in an effort to reduce serious crashes, as driving is only second to gun violence as a cause of officer deaths.

Fortney felt deputies did not need the extra oversight.

“I am going to trust them to drive their car,” Fortney said at the time.

‘Not extremists’

Fortney criticized the governor’s stay-at-home order in April 2020, labeling it as unconstitutional and saying “the impacts of COVID-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights.” A Snohomish barber cited Fortney’s stance when he openly defied the stay-at-home order.

Two recall attempts in 2020 cited the rehired deputies and Fortney’s refusal to enforce the stay-home order. Those behind the recall were unable to get enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

Amid a bogus threat that Antifa rioters would descend on Snohomish, at least 100 people came armed to protect the city’s downtown in June 2020. Some wore symbols of far-right groups, including the Proud Boys. Fortney spoke with two groups of armed locals, and reported they were “not white nationalists, they were not extremists.”

He told the Snohomish County Council he advised them to leave policing the city up to the police: “I’m asking that you not get involved. If you want to be our eyes and ears, then feel free to do so, and call 911.”

Deputies weren’t aware of the presence of any far-right groups, the sheriff said at the time.

“Our extremist groups have been on the rise in our area for a long time,” Johnson said this month. “The FBI consistently puts out information that that’s the greatest threat domestically to us … that’s a big deal and we’re not currently doing much about that.”

In 2022, an outspoken sheriff’s deputy, with alleged ties to the Proud Boys, was hired and then fired by Fortney. Authorities concluded a background check missed red flags.

“Initially,” Johnson said, “he wanted to keep him on staff, even though his whole staff said, ‘No, this will undermine public trust because of biased policing.’”

At the time, Fortney said it showed he was willing to listen and change his mind: “I read our Sheriff’s Office vision statement, ‘to prioritize public trust,’ and I knew that no matter what I did or how I explained it, a portion of our community would lose trust in our office.”

More recently, Fortney drew criticism for inviting controversial Sheriff Mark Lamb, of Pinal County, Arizona, to a private campaign event in July. Lamb has ties to the constitutional sheriffs movement, an ideology that believes sheriffs to be the ultimate law enforcement authority.

In 2019, Fortney helped organized a ridealong for Anna Rohrbough, a conservative Snohomish County Council candidate. He had donated $125 to her campaign. She gave $250 to his. The Republican candidate used photos from the ride in a Facebook post. Ridealongs were suspended after the incident.

This month at a public event alongside Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin and Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, the sheriff described himself as apolitical.

“I don’t care about Republican or Democrat,” Fortney said. “I don’t care about red team or blue team.”

‘A crime spike’

Meanwhile, Fortney feels his deputies enforced what they can with what they have.

“We have done more than most police agencies in the State of Washington to combat crime in Snohomish County over the last four years,” Fortney wrote in an email. “There is a crime spike both locally and nationally for numerous different reasons some of which we can control and some I can’t.”

Over 75% of the Snohomish County general fund goes toward public safety. In 2023, the sheriff’s office budget was over $79 million. In the initial 2024 executive budget proposal, that number is set to rise to $87 million. The sheriff’s office increased salaries by 19.5% during Fortney’s term, as a four-year contract was approved by the Snohomish County Council last year. In 2022, the sheriff’s office had 100 openings.

The sheriff’s office still has 106 openings, with two-thirds of those being in the jail. It’s a reflection of a police hiring crunch nationwide.

Both candidates want to see staffing levels rebound.

Johnson’s plan for fixing staffing revolves around investing in staff. She would “prioritize safety, mental and physical well-being” and implement what she calls an “Every Employee” initiative, with tracks for professional growth.

She said she would “strengthen core leadership skills through assessment and mentoring.”

Fortney wrote in an email: “My plan to address these vacancies is to continue to set hiring records at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office (to) make up as much ground as possible. All local police agencies are in the same position with staffing needs, but the SCSO has been extremely successful in attracting applicants for all positions.”

He added: “Attrition has remained high but this is not specific to the SCSO, it has hit all police agencies in the State of Washington.”

In the meantime, the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office recorded 24 murders in 2022, double the number of the previous year.

There were 128 opioid overdose deaths in 2018, compared to 215 last year.

Assaults, unlawful gun possession and vehicle thefts were up.

Reports of robbery, burglary, and fraud held roughly steady. Vehicle prowling was down.

Those crime stats come from a dashboard compiled by the sheriff’s office — an initiative Fortney said shows a commitment to transparency.

Johnson countered it has taken “a long time for him” to get the stats back up on the website.

“Use of force, demographics, pursuits, collisions — there’s a bunch of things we used to put out that aren’t being put out now,” she said.

‘Just enough staffing’

In 2021, Fortney bolstered patrols around Airport Road and Highway 99, a hotbed of homelessness and drug use.

Ultimately, inroads with local business owners led to the creation of a new Mariner Square substation. The new office space was given to deputies, free of charge, by a building owner. The grand opening was Tuesday.

Johnson said she would keep the substation open.

After an eight-month hiatus, the county reinstated the Office of Neighborhoods in March. Due to budget and staffing concerns, Fortney had temporarily disbanded its three special policing units, assigning deputies to other duties. The program is now housed at the new substation, where deputies help to connect unhoused people to services.

Johnson helped build the Office of Neighborhoods in 2015, she said.

“What I want you and the community to know,” Fortney wrote in an email this month, “is that under my leadership and direction the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office never stopped enforcing the law and we have even done criminal emphasis patrols for the vast majority of my first term in Office.”

Sixty-eight open positions in corrections remain a pressing problem.

In the past two months, three inmates have died in the county jail.

Overdoses and suicides in the jail have been longstanding issues, preceding Fortney.

Johnson would like to see more programs in the jail to help with detox, but also others like skills training.

“We would need to get the staffing back up before we could look at adding more programs,” she said, “because I think there’s just enough staffing in there to manage the daily population.”

Local courts have also faced backlogs. Reverberations from the state Supreme Court decision in State v. Blake have fundamentally changed how drug crimes are prosecuted. With fewer people charged, fewer people end up in jail — where they can get professional help.

Some experts say jail may be the worst place for someone struggling with addiction.

Both candidates, however, said they’re in favor of reforms allowing for arrests in cases of simple drug possession.

“Now we are able to make the arrest, so I think that is a good thing,” said Johnson, in support of legislation this year that reclassified possession of a controlled substance as a gross misdemeanor.

“It’s hard to keep people in our facility, which we don’t do, judges are responsible for that,” Fortney said earlier this month. “That is probably the number one biggest obstacle we have to really, truly getting people help right now.”

Early in the pandemic, the sheriff lifted booking restrictions at the Snohomish County Jail to allow for more inmates.

“We are in the business of public safety and keeping society safe from those who would commit crimes against our community,” Fortney wrote on his campaign website. “If we don’t have a jail that is open for bookings, safe to inmates, employees and others in the criminal justice system, then accountability is lacking.”

Johnson said she is the only candidate in the race who has served as a detective on the regional drug task force.

“People who wouldn’t want to go to jail would tell us who their distributor was and so that helped us get more dealers,” Johnson said. “We haven’t really had that hook for a little while.”

‘Slivers of hope’

For both candidates, crime prevention can be as simple as listening.

Both want to build partnerships with law enforcement agencies, faith-based groups, nonprofits and volunteers — but Johnson said she had endorsements from a more diverse pool.

“The complexity of behavioral health, housing-unstable and addiction, really needs all players at the table,” Johnson said. “I think we all agree that law enforcement, in some cases, people don’t want us to be the solution. We’re certainly not the solution, but we’re definitely a participant at the table.”

Smart policing is important, she said. Data would guide how the sheriff’s office deploys resources, something she feels Fortney is not doing.

“My perspective, based upon my training and experience, is the leaner your staffing resources, the more deliberate you need to be where you put them,” Johnson said.

Johnson would like to see more work with school districts to target gang activity. Gangs target kids as early as elementary school, she said.

“As much as we can, we want to obviously save them from that lifestyle,” Johnson said. “We understand why they go into that lifestyle, maybe they have absent parents, they need a sense of belonging, a sense of safety, but we do see that they’re the ones being given guns and drugs. They’re the one’s pulling the trigger on drivebys. It’s very concerning because of the fact that they’ll do less time.”

Fortney said he has tried to address root issues, in part by promoting programs for Snohomish County youth. He created an eight-week program, “Lead the Way,” for kids ages 13 to 17. It connects teens with deputies, focusing on building relationships.

“I’m very passionate about the youth in our community,” Fortney said. “They get a bad rap, sometimes they deserve it, but a lot of times they just need slivers of hope planted in them.”

The county sheriff is elected for a four-year term and paid $179,725.91 annually.

Ballots are due Nov. 7.

Jordan Hansen: 425-339-3046;; Twitter: @jordyhansen.

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