EVERETT — Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney has had a busy and tumultuous first six months on the job.
Some of his first actions included doing away with the telematics systems that track the use of patrol cars, reinstating three deputies who had been fired by the previous sheriff for alleged policy violations and relaxing the pursuit policy to give deputies more discretion on when to chase after suspects.
He’s had to navigate the county’s largest law enforcement agency through the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against police brutality. And he’s been the subject of two campaigns to recall him from elected office after he wrote a controversial Facebook post critiquing the governor’s response to the pandemic.
In a wide-ranging, hour-and-a-half interview, Fortney sat down with The Daily Herald recently to reflect on his decisions and talk about all that’s taken place. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: What’s your assessment of your first six months as sheriff?
Answer: There’s a lot to reflect on … I think we hit the ground running. I kind of ran on a tough-on-crime message, I was trying to instill that. But then late February, early March, COVID hit and it changed everything, that you guys do, that we do … and we’ve completely changed the way we do business with that.
There’s been some controversy with my Facebook post, there’s no doubt about it, I haven’t been shy about it. … The first six months has been an absolute challenge. There’s been some stressful days. My decision-making process doesn’t change. I try to do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. But, being in elected office, there are weighty decisions. They are more impactful, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve had to make several — sometimes several a week. But I look forward to that challenge. I can’t wait for things to calm down a little bit. I look forward to that day. Don’t know if it’s going to come — it hasn’t come yet.
Q: When it comes to the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, you came out saying it was abhorrent. Has that resulted in any soul searching for your sheriff’s office, and what actions are you taking in response to that, and the increased scrutiny on police brutality against black people?
A: Soul searching — I really like that term. Yes, both as the sheriff of Snohomish County, because I’m responsible for over 800 employees and the public, and me, just as a 23-year street cop. Yeah, I’m absolutely soul searching. What happened in Minneapolis, if you’re not searching your soul after watching something like that, there’s got to be something wrong with you.
I meant what I said, I chose that word abhorrent on purpose, because it is. That video, it’s painful to watch that video. It’s tough to get through. You think of the time — and I’ve been in many, many uses of force, and for the most part they’re unexpected and they happen real quick. George Floyd was in handcuffs already. Even if he wasn’t being cooperative, it doesn’t matter, he’s in handcuffs. This goes on for — I heard different reports, I don’t know what the exact time was, between 6 and 9 minutes. If you sat down with a stopwatch between six and nine, that’s a long time when you’re talking about something like that. So I meant what I said, and I’m absolutely soul searching.
Q: Is there anything you’re doing specifically in response?
A: What are we doing? I think first, it’s a time for law enforcement to listen. And I know people want action, man I get it, and they’re right. They’re not wrong. Right now we’re kind of in listening mode, listening both internally at the sheriff’s office — I can tell you what I mean by that — and community groups all over Snohomish County.
The first one that I started, that was my decision, was specific to what are we doing internally at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office when it comes to race and racism. We’ve got a very diverse group of both corrections and law enforcement deputies — we met in this room. It was a discussion, and it was good for me to hear their perspective. We are so diverse at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, and I love that about us, and I was surprised to hear some of the stories.
I think there’s always things we can improve upon at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, but I’m going to listen to them first. I want to know what they think, I want to know what this group thinks. … We’re assigning our captain in corrections to lead that group. We want to give them some space. They’re going to have the freedom to say whatever they want. They have the freedom to tell me whatever they want. And if they want to recommend changes, they’re absolutely going to have that freedom.
… The other thing the sheriff’s office is doing, we’re going into internal review of use of force. We have looked at the “8 Can’t Wait” criteria that have been published nationwide. I’m actually proud to say — I’m not saying we have all eight, but I’m saying we’re almost there. … There are things we can change, but we’re doing, as far as the policy changes goes, we’re doing a pretty good job at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
One of the things is de-escalation, and one of the other things is reporting requirements, because we saw in Minneapolis the three others that basically sat around and watched. I’m happy to say that was already in our policy and procedures manual. What we did is, we didn’t think that language was strong enough. … I put out a general order effective immediately (to make) those language changes.
Again it was already there, but we’re saying not after what’s transpired. We need to be transparent with the community, and we need to let them know, yeah, we’re making changes where we need to.
Q: When it comes to police use of force, some police agencies are looking at banning certain types of choke holds. Have you looked at that?
A: I’ll have to clarify the difference — I don’t like word games, I just want to call it what it is. When we choke somebody, that’s cutting off their airway, OK? That’s lethal force. We don’t do that. We do allow what we call the lateral vascular neck restraint. That’s like a sleeper hold if you will. That’s kind of a slang term for it. And that’s on the sides, it cuts off blood flow to the brain. It’s like MMA, when we do that. You have to go through an eight-hour class to be certified, and every year after that you have to re-certify, in order to do it. It’s rarely used.
This is my issue with banning that outright. One, it’s not a choke hold, and two, the uses of force we get into, the fights we get into, they’re dynamic. I’m not a very big guy. Sometimes you can’t choose who you’re up against in a given situation. I don’t want an officer or deputy hurt because I’ve taken a tool away from them. Now, do we have to monitor when it’s used, make sure it’s used appropriately, make sure it’s within our guidelines? Absolutely, and we do that. So, that is one of the things I am not willing to take away. Now, if the state chooses to do that, at the state level, then absolutely we’ll comply with that. I’m not willing to do that as the sheriff right now though. It is just a tool, it is rarely used, and if a deputy sheriff needs that tool to save his or her life one day, it’s going to be available to them, as long as I’m legally able to do that.
Q: Listening to the community response over what happened in Snohomish, involving armed vigilantes who gathered in downtown, has that helped you or your staff to identify what your blindspots are and address those?
A: Yeah, absolutely. Do I know what each one of those are? I don’t know that I do yet, I think that’s going to take a lot of listening. … We started the panel in Snohomish already. We met last Wednesday with community leaders. … I don’t think we had hundreds and hundreds of white supremacists show up to Snohomish. I don’t think that in my heart. I just don’t. I will acknowledge there could’ve been a few idiots there. I’ll denounce that all day long. But can I say that and also say, man, I wasn’t seeing that through the lens of these other people in the community, that we’re hearing, right? Am I learning from that? Yeah, I have to learn from that, right?
So I would say, emphatically, yes to your question. Am I learning, is there value in what the community came out and said? Yeah, there’s absolutely value in that. I think you can value both. You can value and say, for the most part, people showed up to protect their town in Snohomish that night. Right or wrong, whether you disagree with it or not, for the most part they had good intentions. Can I say that, and also say, man that looked rough to some other people in the community? Yeah, and you bet I’m listening, I’m taking it all in.
Q: The mayor in Snohomish mentioned Keith Rogers had asked to be reassigned. Do you know if that’s the case?
A: He offered me basically his resignation as police chief — not his job — and I said no way. … Let me be real clear about this. I was shoulder to shoulder with Chief Rogers during Sunday, during the command center there. I would almost be compromising my own integrity if I said yes, I will take your resignation because of what happened Sunday, but yet I was standing shoulder to shoulder with you knowing what you were doing, as your boss, and being OK with the decisions that were made. So no, I’m not going to take your resignation, I didn’t think that was the right thing to do at the time, at all.
A few more days went by. … It was clear, mutually for both the city of Snohomish and for Keith Rogers, and the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, the timing was right. So, yeah, initially I said no thanks, we’re going to stand by you, and I do stand by him — I want to be really clear about that. But it was time for the community. The community needed something else. … Snohomish needed a new leader in there, and I think it was time.
Q: Anything else you wanted to say in terms of things that could’ve been done differently in Snohomish?
A: Listen, there’s a lot of work to do in Snohomish, and all over our community. Snohomish is kind of a microcosm for what we are all as a nation almost feeling right now. So there’s some — some soul searching, is the right word, going on. But I’m also kind of excited for where we go from here, these talks with the community.
Look, I’ll just say it, what you read about me in the papers and on the social media, it’s horrible. It’s like, man, this guy, he’s crazy, he’s an idiot, and that’s what’s being said, right? That’s why I value these conversations, that’s why I value these community groups. When I get a chance to get in front of people, and you can gauge me, looking into my eyes, see if I’m just blowing smoke, or if I’m being real, right? You can see, OK, there’s a little bit more to this guy. He does not support white supremacy in any way, shape or form. It’s ludicrous stuff. So I value where we’re going with this stuff, both in the city of Snohomish, you asked me about that, and as a greater community.
Q: In January, you reinstated three deputies: Matt Boice, Evan Twedt and Arthur Wallin. Where are they today? What are they doing?
A: Wallin’s in K9. The other two are in patrol … one’s south, one’s north.
Q: Is that a decision you still stand by?
A: Absolutely, 100%. Completely stand by it.
Q: What’s the status of the recent incident involving Deputy Twedt?
A: It’s under investigation. And that’s one of the things, look, I’m learning from the other incident on Highway 99. (This involved a deputy who tackled a Black woman after she was stopped for jaywalking, and gained attention after a civil rights attorney wrote about it on social media.) It’s under investigation, so I’m not going to talk about it, and that’s one of the reasons why. It’s probably the right thing to do. I tried with the other one, I tried to give some clarification, if you will, to the community, and that hasn’t worked out for me. So I’m going to stop doing it. And that pains me, because I think that was an effort in transparency, is what it was, being transparent with the community. But there are now legal implications for that for me. So I’ve got to work through that.
Q: Are you able to answer questions about the Highway 99 case?
A: Nope, not at all.
Q: How has the jail changed, from pre-COVID, to the outbreak, to now?
A: I guess I’ll speak generally about corrections, man, and you may have heard me say this because I repeat it as often as I can. Our corrections bureau is the shining light for others to be looking at, as far as our response to COVID-19. We are a model for what other corrections facilities should be doing.
… We have booked COVID-positive patients because of all the work they have done over there. We haven’t had one case spread in the jail, or contracted in the jail. I think we’re at six, I haven’t looked at those numbers this week, but last I checked we were at six. We’ve had employees contract it, we have confirmed they got it outside of corrections.
So I think we’ve done a really good job. They have written a model policy as far as response to COVID-19 within corrections goes, and sent that to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. I don’t know what they’re going to do with that yet, but it might be used statewide as a model policy. I say might, because they haven’t yet. But we’re proud of what we did in corrections.
I don’t think it’s controversial, my lifting of jail restrictions. … We went through some pretty severe jail restrictions in COVID, and we reached a point where we felt we had enough precautions in place that we could lift some of those restrictions, so I decided to do that. … This wasn’t a, ‘Uh, hey, COVID is over, it’s time to fill up the jail thing,” that was never my intention. It was the jail leadership coming to me, saying, “Adam, we can do this, it’s safe.”
This goes back to discretion. Look, we think the deputies and the officers, because most agencies book into our jail, should have the discretion to book people. I can’t control what the prosecutor’s office and the defense attorneys in conjunction with the courts do after that. My only intention was, if I’m in this for public safety, and we have deputies out there, and they decide from whatever may have occurred this person needs to go to jail tonight, I wanted to give them that ability back, that was my intention.
We basically ran about 950 average daily population in the jail prior to COVID. We’re still below 400. The lowest we got was 290. Right now we’re fluctuating, it’s about 375 right now. Really low right now. But yes, I did give them that discretion back. … It wasn’t a free-for-all, it was very methodical, it was very well thought out, I thought, by the jail leadership.
So yeah, I’m OK with that. Again, shining light is the word I would use to describe our corrections over there. They have done a fantastic job.
Q: Is it still limited to one inmate per cell?
Q: Can you talk about how the budget cuts will affect the sheriff’s office?
A: We’ll get through 2020 without any layoffs of human beings. But we’re losing positions. … What I mean losing, is there are funded billets in 2020, they are no longer funded because they’ve been cut. … We’re losing positions, it’s just not human beings. That was my goal, is I didn’t want human beings walking away from the job. I did everything we can.
Q: Is there anything else we can expect from the sheriff’s office in the near future?
A: I hope it’s all good, or nothing. I don’t know, man. We’ll get through this, but it’s going to take a lot of work.
Q: How’s the facial hair policy?
A: It’s probably the most popular decision I made to date, to be honest with you.
Q: Still going strong?
Q: Yeah, I had to take it off the table when COVID first hit, because of the mask thing, but I did reinstate it a couple weeks ago, so it is back.
Reporters Caleb Hutton and Eric Stevick contributed to this story.