EVERETT — Sheriff Adam Fortney on Monday proposed that Snohomish County spend $70,000 on a virtual reality training system for law enforcement officers and tens of thousands of dollars more on community outreach events to spur conversations about social justice and policing.
Fortney characterized his ideas as a way to get people talking and “bridge the gap” between law enforcement and the community.
“I’m not saying that this a solution for everything that we’re facing in Snohomish County and nationwide. This is just one avenue,” he said.
He asked for $15,000 for a “youth academy” that would give young people a place to share their thoughts on race and policing and provide insight into deputies’ day-to-day work.
Similar discussions would take place at community forums, estimated to cost about $5,000 each, Fortney said. At another event, likely to cost about $10,000, people of color would mingle with law enforcement and kids would get free haircuts from local barbers.
The virtual reality system, a product of Las Vegas-based company Apex Officer, would be used to train deputies and as a tool to give the public a window into how they make decisions, he said.
Fortney’s pitch drew the ire of local activists, who chalked up the proposal to a public relations campaign instead of a legitimate attempt to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“This is not a PR issue,” Brittany Tri, an attorney who lives in Everett, said at a virtual meeting where Fortney presented the plan to the County Council. “The Sheriff’s Office should have been taking a much, much closer look at things they can do to address systemic racism and systemic oppression that has been going on in policing in America since its inception, when it formed out of slave patrols.”
Tri is one of four Snohomish County attorneys who spearheaded an ongoing recall campaign against the sheriff.
“Asking the public to play video games so that they can understand why cops need to shoot people is absurd,” Tri said.
Fortney’s proposal comes as civil unrest over police brutality continues in Washington cities and across the country. The movement, propelled by high-profile cases of Black people dying at the hand of police, has incited calls for Snohomish County and other governments to “defund” law enforcement and put more money toward human services programs meant to address issues at the root of criminal behavior.
Councilwoman Megan Dunn expressed doubts about Fortney’s plan, saying it puts the onus on the public to change its perception of law enforcement. Meanwhile, organizations including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a local collective of public defenders have put forth concrete policy proposals they believe can save lives, she said.
“What we’ve been hearing from people asking for reforms is the need to reform the culture of law and justice and the policing culture, which has relied on punitive actions and resulted in a disproportionate amount of violence towards communities of color,” Dunn said.
Councilmember Sam Low voiced support for Fortney’s proposal.
“Clearly I’m not in favor of defunding the police,” Low said. “And I’m not an activist. I’m a council member.”
Fortney told the council that Sheriff’s Office policies are “absolutely on the table” for improvement. He wrote in a four-page memo to the council that the agency has “a very good track record of racial equity, diversion and inclusion in the workplace” and that the community is “in a good place when it comes to racism and discrimination.”
This week, Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell proposed that the county explore integrating various databases used by prosecutors, public defenders, judges and other players in the local law and justice system — an endeavor that, while complex, would give the county easy access to information to build a foundation for future reforms. Cornell estimated the county would spend about $50,000 for a consultant to study what data is needed to better understand racial inequities in the system and how to collect that data. Another $250,000 would pay for a data specialist and research analyst for the project, he said.
“The bottom line is if we’re comparing apples to oranges, we’re going to starve,” Cornell told the council. “What this does is compare apples to apples in a way that I think is going to make for a much healthier criminal justice system in this county.”
The council will keep weighing budget requests related to social justice and other issues as it works toward passing a final version of the 2021 budget, ultimately slated for adoption on Nov. 10. Other ideas on the table include body cameras for Sheriff’s deputies, more mental health professionals to assist people in crisis and implicit bias training for employees.
A draft of budget allocations that County Council Chairman Nate Nehring presented to his colleagues this week allotted $125,000 to Fortney’s social justice plan, with a proposed condition that he present more details to the council about each element before the money is available. Dunn and Councilman Jared Mead raised questions about whether that $125,000 might be better spent on other reform efforts, though.
At a public hearing on Monday night, about a dozen county residents made renewed calls for the county to redistribute Sheriff’s Office funding to social services and other programs that help people in need.
Under the 2021 spending plan that the council is considering, the county would continue to spend about 42% of its $264 million general fund on the Sheriff’s Office and less than 2% on the Department of Human Services. When taking into account all other funds that make up the county’s entire $1.045 billion budget, the human services department would receive about $137 million and the law enforcement agency would get $134 million.
“When you meet the needs of the community and address the core of its well being, the need for law and justice services will decline,” Everett resident Dianna Jaramillo told the council. “We really continue to place an unfair burden on law enforcement officers because they are not equipped or trained to address poverty or housing insecurity and income insecurity.”