Sweeping racial justice plan blindsides sheriff, prosecutor

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers is pushing for bail reform, body cameras and a citizen oversight board.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

EVERETT — A community police oversight board, cash bail reform and body cameras for all county law enforcement officers are some elements of Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers’ new plan to combat “institutional and systemic racism.”

On the heels of a series of local demonstrations over police brutality and racial injustice, Somers announced the creation of the Office of Social Justice.

But the unveiling of the costly, complex and multifaceted project on a Friday afternoon blindsided the leaders of county government’s two largest law enforcement agencies, Sheriff Adam Fortney and Prosecutor Adam Cornell.

“The executive’s office did not include me at all in these conversations, and frankly I find that shocking and disappointing,” said Cornell, who has been vocal in support of progressive criminal justice reform and the uprooting of systemic racism.

The sheriff, who campaigned as tough on crime, echoed Cornell’s frustration.

“I was surprised by Executive Somers’ proposals today that impact nearly every segment of county government,” Fortney said in a written statement. “While I look forward to talking with him and learning more about his proposals, I am disappointed there wasn’t some dialogue leading up to his announcement.”

The Office of Social Justice will work with the County Council and an existing diversity task force to set equity-inspired goals and take other key steps, including:

• Working with the sheriff’s office to install dashboard and body cameras and require that all county law enforcement officers use them.

• Establishing the oversight board. Similar boards have been created to oversee law enforcement agencies across the country and add an extra layer of accountability to police work.

• Collaborating with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and the Office of Public Defense to reform the cash bail system, which has been criticized for keeping poor people in jail because they cannot afford to get out. The Office of Social Justice will also work with key players in the legal system to address other “outstanding legal financial obligations that impact indigent persons in 2021,” the news release says.

“Slavery predated our nation and funded our Founding. Jim Crow and the failure of Reconstruction offered only the illusion of freedom to Black Americans,” Somers said in a statement. “Today, we see racialized policing leading to the over-representation of persons of color in our criminal justice system and jails. This is unacceptable, and we must change.”

The plan comes just two days after a County Council meeting about a budget revision erupted into a six-hour debate among residents over whether funding spent on law enforcement should be diverted to other social and health programs that promote community welfare.

The council eventually unanimously passed an ordinance instituting across-the-board budget cuts of 3.5% for county departments and agencies, including the sheriff’s office to offset the fiscal toll of the coronavirus pandemic. Initially, cuts of 4.25% were proposed, but the council reduced that number to save jobs at the law enforcement agency.

Law and justice services — including district and superior courts — account for about 71% of the county’s general fund budget in 2020. The sheriff’s office and jail make up about 42%.

One project that was abandoned because of the cuts was a $250,000 study to examine the county’s law and justice system and recommend improvements.

The budget revision ordinance passed on Wednesday also directed the creation of a work group, including representatives from the council, the Sheriff’s Office, and the Executive Department, that will meet monthly to “review budget reports and analyze cost saving measures.”

Fueling the tension at the Wednesday meeting were demands made two days earlier by a group of local public defenders, who called on the council to redistribute half of the sheriff’s office budget into housing, counseling and other social services. They requested in a letter to the council that the county invest in a range of programs that would help people struggling with addiction and mental health issues, as well as those being released from jails, psychiatric institutions or inpatient substance abuse treatment centers.

Activists have asked local governments across the country to divest from police agencies as part of a nationwide movement protesting the deaths of people of color at the hands of police — including George Floyd, an African American man who died May 25 while in custody in Minnesota. Four Minneapolis police officers have been charged in his death.

On Thursday, at a special meeting with the County Council, Somers said calls to defund law enforcement were “crazy” and “unfortunate.”

When asked about the public defenders’ proposal on Tuesday, Somers said he does not “support an arbitrary reallocation of dollars.”

“What we need to do is have a conversation or a further conversation about roles and responsibilities and who does what best,” he said. “And we’ve recognized for quite some time that we ask our law enforcement officers to be not only law enforcement officers, but mental health responders and medical responders and family counselors (who) are interjected into very complex situations.”

In his 2021 budget proposal, Somers will include funding for outreach to marginalized communities. His staff will also gauge the need to put more money toward communities of color and social services, the news release says.

Employees will also get more education and resources for confronting institutional racism, according to the news release. All county staff, including those in law enforcement, will receive “antiracism, inherent bias, and trauma-informed training” from experts this fall. The executive’s office will also work with the sheriff and human resources to provide “trauma informed counseling and leave” for law enforcement officers who experienced traumatic situations.

“I believe it is important that we engage the community on meaningful criminal justice reform,” County Council Chairman Nate Nehring said in a statement. “I look forward to hearing and considering proposals which will come forward to implement positive change.”

Setting aside his surprise, the county prosecutor expressed support for new programs such as an oversight board on Friday, but said he still needed to learn more about the executive’s vision for what it would look like.

“I support efforts to increase accountability to police and to bring racial justice to our community,” Cornell said, “to improve the work and enhance the confidence that people have in our criminal justice system.”

Herald reporters Zachariah Bryan and Caleb Hutton contributed to this story.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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