LAKE STEVENS — A longtime local law enforcement officer will run for sheriff against incumbent Adam Fortney in 2023.
Susanna Johnson, 55, of Lake Stevens, has more than 30 years of policing experience. She worked at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office until 2020, when she took a job at the Bothell Police Department where she currently serves as deputy chief.
The candidate said she is running with the intention to “rebuild” the sheriff’s reputation and trustworthiness in the community.
“I feel like the sheriff’s office needs a new leader,” Johnson told The Daily Herald. “Somebody that’s not afraid of change and has this actual knowledge and experience to deploy effective law enforcement strategies and make the county safe, and build trust.”
Sheriff Fortney declined to comment for this story.
Fortney, a former patrol sergeant, defeated then-Sheriff Ty Trenary in the 2019 election through a “tough-on-crime” campaign that resonated with many voters and led to a victory by a 10% margin. He has since made controversial statements about Gov. Jay Inslee’s pandemic response and faced two recall efforts — both of which failed to get on the ballot.
Johnson said some of the decisions Fortney made early on, such as rehiring three former deputies who were fired by the previous sheriff for violating department policies, caused concern among the rank and file.
“When there is already a … lack of trust in the profession, and those examples come out very publicly, then I think everybody that cares about the service component cared about what was going on,” she said.
Fortney has stood by the rehiring the deputies, saying the previous sheriff fired them as “political payback” for supporting the then-sergeant’s candidacy.
Johnson retired from the department in 2020, the same year Fortney took office.
“It was my time to go,” she said.
Johnson started her career as a patrol deputy for the sheriff’s office in 1990. She became the first female patrol captain at the sheriff’s office, she said. She is also a graduate of the FBI National Academy. She had plans to retire in 2020.
“I started getting recruited by other agencies,” she said. “I found, I was actually surprised, I missed it. I was not done serving.”
In 2020, she was hired by the Bothell Police Department as a lateral police captain, she said. Earlier this year, she was promoted to deputy chief.
Johnson said she has spent the past year hearing from county residents at community meetings.
“They don’t feel as safe as they did three years ago,” she said. “There seems to be low trust and confidence in how the leadership is running. I think it’s a lack of experience, because the current leader — his experience topped out as a night time patrol sergeant.”
If elected, Johnson said her top priority would be addressing reported staffing shortages. Fortney has also been trying to solve that issue through pay raises. Johnson believes his decisions were part of the problem.
“The rehires … did drive some people out of the sheriff’s office,” she said.
Johnson said she would focus on recruiting people of color around the county.
As Fortney has been, she was critical of the state Supreme Court’s Blake decision of 2021 that decriminalized simple drug possession.
“We’d like nothing more than for those people to get help, to get clean and become happy members of society,” she said. “Often that means it starts with an arrest.”
Johnson said the sheriff’s office could do better with transparency — an issue that Fortney has pointed to as one of his best assets.
Johnson countered that, until 2018, the sheriff’s office compiled a magazine-style annual report with countywide crime statistics. The office stopped publishing those reports on the county website four years ago.
“He kept moving the dial on it,” Johnson said. “He said, ‘We used to do it, but nobody was reading it, so we stopped doing it.’ … There was this side-trip that talked about hundreds of copies that weren’t read. I just thought, ‘Why don’t you just reduce the number of copies or just put it out virtually?’”
Johnson has the support of former Sheriff Trenary, according to a statement released by the campaign. She said she feels grateful to have spent her career in the county.
“I was never treated differently as a woman,” she said. “I was never held back or pushed ahead because of my gender. I feel very fortunate that I worked at the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office because that was the culture.”
Whoever is elected in 2023 will serve a four-year term as sheriff, overseeing hundreds of deputies as well as the county jail.