The watchdog within

MILL CREEK — Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy Mike Roskind has something to say, a message he insists is a matter of life and death.

Roskind leans forward in his chair and locks his visitor with a penetrating stare. His 6-foot-1-inch frame looms large in a bulletproof vest and deputy’s uniform. There’s a gun on his hip.

The gold badge pinned on his chest indicates he’s one of the good guys.

Why wouldn’t someone take him seriously?

Roskind, 42, says the county’s 300,000 unincorporated-area residents are at risk. Their lives and property are easy prey for criminals, he says, because the 247-deputy sheriff’s department isn’t large enough to do its job well.

Sheriff Rick Bart, other county politicians and taxpayers for years have been saying the department needs more deputies to patrol roughly 2,000 square miles — an area larger than Rhode Island. Since 1996, the county has added 72 deputies and is trying to find ways to hire more. County expenditures on law and order have nearly tripled over the last 12 years.

But Roskind, who has been with the department since 1997, says that’s not enough. He says the deputy shortage points to a conspiracy, so he has decided to risk his job and reputation by blowing the whistle.

Others oppose his actions, saying he’s a loose cannon, adept at making convincing arguments that are not based on facts.

“He’s made my life miserable for about two years,” Bart said.

In recent months, Roskind has appeared on television, off-duty, suggesting that the September murder of 18-year-old Rachel Burkheimer was connected to a lack of deputies. A patrol deputy based in Mill Creek, Roskind is not an investigator in that murder case.

A few weeks later, he was back in the news, off-duty, leading protests outside area gas stations, alleging, among other things that the Shell corporation is peddling The Netherlands’ permissive philosophy on drugs. Again the drumbeat: More deputies are needed to keep drugs off the streets.

There aren’t enough deputies, Roskind asserts, because county politicians are using unchecked crime as a means to force people out of less populated suburban and rural neighborhoods and into cities. A sheriff’s administrator gave him paperwork that points to the conspiracy, he says.

At the same time, the county has spent millions of dollars buying park land under circumstances that Roskind says he believes are criminal.

Roskind has complained to agencies ranging from the FBI to the state auditor to the state Human Rights Commission, urging them to help him clean up the conspiracy in Snohomish County. So far, nothing substantial has been found.

The deputy said he’s been under so much pressure not to right the wrongs he sees that in November he brought a federal lawsuit against his employer — the county.

He said his promotion to sergeant was blocked as retaliation for speaking out. If he wins his suit, county taxpayers could be handing over an unspecified chunk of money for the raise he would have received, as well as damages.

The sheriff’s department started to pressure him, Roskind says, after he and his family filed claims for $100 million against the county in 2001. The claims were for an injury Roskind sustained while on duty, which he maintains would have been avoidable had there been more deputies.

Roskind’s actions highlight how easily a man’s private beliefs can override the public good, particularly when his job is to protect and serve.

Travis Talbot once welcomed Roskind as an ally, crucial in ridding his Edmonds-area neighborhood of crime. He is now among a cadre of activists who have distanced themselves over doubts about the deputy’s message and motives.

“When a uniformed officer, when a public official whom you would typically trust, comes in your home and tells you something, you would hope you’d want to believe them,” Talbot said.

Leaders of the sheriff’s deputies union avoid Roskind, whom they contend has hurt, not helped, the cause of adding more deputies.

Bart admits that Roskind is an intelligent man with lots of promise, but is flawed by “common-sense issues.”

Roskind’s record with the department includes entering a home under now-questioned circumstances, improperly searching a car and delaying for hours his response to a 911 call of a child being threatened with a gun.

* * *

As this story was prepared, Roskind was the focus of an internal sheriff’s department investigation into alleged mishandling of evidence at crime scenes.

Roskind has been repeatedly told to follow search-and-seizure rules, protecting evidence and individual rights, Bart said

There are questions about his decision to thoroughly search a suspected robber’s empty car without getting a judge’s permission first, Roskind said. His search turned up a BB gun used in a holdup.

In police reports, Roskind said he decided to act without a search warrant because there was a chance some of the suspects that deputies were tracking could have crossed police lines, made their way back to the car and gotten their hands on the weapon.

By making that decision, Roskind could have damaged the prosecution’s case, Bart said. The concern dissipated after both robbery suspects pleaded guilty.

“We have a lot of deputies who feel very uncomfortable working around him,” Bart said.

Roskind contends he is the focus of retaliatory investigations.

“People are looking very closely at everything I do, trying to turn an eye to make me look incompetent,” he said. “I am a very good police officer. I am very good at what I do. I catch bad guys and I put them in jail, and I’m aggressive at doing it.”

However, the crooks don’t always stay in jail.

In November, the state Court of Appeals overturned a Lynnwood man’s 1999 drug conviction over questions about how Roskind got into the man’s home.

The deputy said he was waved inside when deputies arrived on the scene of a teenage drinking and pot party. On the witness stand, Roskind couldn’t say who invited him in.

Roskind is the only deputy who claims police were invited in, defense attorney Mark Vanderveen said. A former deputy prosecutor and police officer, Vanderveen represented the Lynnwood man.

Vanderveen points to police reports that show Roskind and other deputies clearly identified everybody in the house. “There is no question in my mind. Roskind has lied,” Vanderveen said. “Nobody told him to come on in. I don’t believe that.”

Roskind insists he didn’t lie, but erred in not carefully documenting who gave him the invitation. It was an honest mistake, he said.

Roskind offers the same explanation for a March 2002 on-duty accident in which he was responding to a call and ran a red light during rush hour, slamming his patrol car into a sports car. Roskind’s emergency lights were on, but his siren was off. The other driver was left with back injuries and more than $10,000 in bills the county is trying to settle.

* * *

Roskind, who now lives in north King County, grew up in the South Bronx in New York City. He’s fond of talking about how deeply he was touched by the saga of Frank Serpico, the New York narcotics detective who attacked 1970s police corruption.

He also talks a lot about the 1984 stabbing death of his uncle, a Manhattan bartender.

Roskind is a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. He spent time on anti-submarine jets and later, during the Gulf War, flew on EA-6B Prowlers based at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

He was a lieutenant when he left the Navy in 1992 and joined the Seattle Police Department.

He stayed about five years, but left because other officers didn’t share his work ethic, and the culture was tough for a white, male police officer, particularly if they did something controversial, Roskind said.

While in Seattle, he was involved in two shootings.

The first was in 1994, when he traded fire with a man fleeing from a murder. In 1995, Roskind and seven other Seattle officers fatally shot a suicidal man who pointed a clear plastic squirt gun their way.

The man, who was hit by at least 18 bullets, was screaming he wanted to die. An inquest jury found the shooting legally justified because police thought the gun was real.

Roskind believes he fired the first shot, but can’t be sure because other officers thought they did, too.

The death sometimes troubles him, Roskind said, but he is quick to shift the focus to the pain he feels over his current work situation.

“You have no idea,” he said. “You have no idea. … I sought a psychiatrist’s help over this. You know what the topic was? The topic was why I can’t back down, and why I push these things. This is just very painful to me.”

Roskind joined the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office five years ago when six deputy slots were added after steady pressure from the Snohomish County Deputy Sheriff’s Association for more manpower.

The union represents all sheriff’s deputies except top brass — and Roskind.

The deputy withdrew in March, becoming the only rank-and-file deputy who doesn’t pay union dues or vote on union business.

Among his whistle-blowing acts Roskind lists a state Public Disclosure Commission complaint he filed against the union, alleging campaign finance violations.

Sgt. Ty Trenary, president of the deputies union, is reluctant to talk about Roskind, whom he once supervised.

Trenary only recently learned that Roskind went to court in King County and unsuccessfully tried to get an anti-harassment order to forbid him from being Roskind’s boss or representing him as a union official.

In court papers, Roskind claimed Trenary triggered a sheriff’s internal investigation by discussing the deputy’s whistle-blowing. He also complained about an e-mail Trenary circulated “describing me as ‘borderline mental’ and ‘a liar’ to my peers.”

Trenary said he personally disagrees with much of what Roskind has done, particularly filing lawsuits against the county.

Roskind has done some excellent work, Bart said. The deputy is skilled with computers and pushed efforts to prepare computerized maps for police and fire departments in emergencies, the sheriff said. Roskind also has worked hard in neighborhoods struggling with drug trafficking.

Sharon Bihary of Lynnwood said Roskind has taken a personal interest in battling drug-related problems in her neighborhood.

“His heart is in the right place, definitely,” she said.

“I’ve got a lot of letters from citizens who say he is a great cop,” Bart said.

Others have been alarmed by what they’ve seen and heard.

Cindi Sinnema of Edmonds said she was concerned when her neighborhood seemed unable to get police assistance to rapidly close down a drug house. She was equally rattled after Roskind showed up, both on and off duty, and began talking about conspiracies and lawsuits.

“We were almost as scared of the system as we were of the bad guys,” she said.

Roskind can be callous to others’ reactions, Bart said.

“I think he has his heart in the right place. He gets so wound up that he forgets his training,” the sheriff said.

* * *

Before becoming sheriff, Bart was probably best known for the 11 years he spent as a homicide detective. He was one of the lead investigators in the 1982 Charles Campbell triple murder case, and rarely talked to the media.

He was outraged to see Roskind on television not long after Rachel Burkheimer’s murder, pushing his theory that the Marysville woman’s killing was connected to the deputy shortage.

“That, to me, was in poor taste, probably further traumatized the family, and I don’t believe it was the truth,” Bart said.

Roskind was ordered by detectives to prepare a special report summarizing his contact with the news media and others.

The sheriff’s policy and procedures manual requires deputies to promote a positive public image of the department. Violations include “taking criticisms of the agency’s operations to the general public when such actions cause the office to suffer the public’s loss of faith and when the member cannot show that such actions were in the public’s best interest.”

At the same time, the policy also protects an officer’s freedom of speech, such as “off-duty constitutionally protected speech, including bona fide political or labor organization activities.”

The county’s relationship with Roskind has been increasingly strained since May 2001, when another deputy accidentally struck him in the knee with a heavy flashlight while the pair grappled with a domestic violence suspect.

Roskind and his family filed claims totaling $100 million.

It wouldn’t have been necessary to fight the man on a balcony if more deputies had been sent earlier, he said. The county denied the claim, pointing out that four deputies were on the scene. The deputy later dropped the claim, saying his primary motivation was to call attention to staffing.

The county isn’t moving fast enough to solve the problems, he said, so he hasn’t immediately responded to some 911 calls.

In papers he filed with the state Auditor’s Office, Roskind said he initially refused to go on a call involving a man with a gun who was threatening the child of an ex-girlfriend. Despite repeatedly being dispatched, he went several hours later, only after more backup became available.

Racing to the scene without adequate backup could have led to avoidable violence and resulted in personal legal liability, Roskind said.

“I am more than willing to risk myself, as I have for my whole life,” he said. “I don’t mind getting hurt. What I do mind is being set up where I have to constantly make these moral decisions” that affect his safety, co-workers and the public.

Refusal to immediately respond to dispatches has been a recurring issue with Roskind, but not a matter for discipline, because the deputy has yet to ignore a direct order, Bart said.

He’s not the only deputy

who insists on appropriate backup, Roskind said, adding that other deputies share his frustrations and are investigating the causes.

A top sheriff’s administrator — Roskind refuses to say who it was — once gave him a copy of county policies regarding state growth management laws. They show that the county is deliberately withholding police service and creating crime zones that force people into cities, Roskind said.

County and state officials say that’s nonsense, and that the policies are designed to prevent sprawl and concentrate public services, including police, where they are most needed.

Roskind said he’s met county residents equally frustrated with poor police response, and suggested they file a class-action lawsuit against the county claiming their civil rights had been violated by the county not providing adequate police protection.

Travis Talbot met Roskind after a drug trafficker began causing problems in his Edmonds-area neighborhood. Roskind put a lot of police pressure on the problem and also met with neighbors when he was off duty to share his personal opinions. Talbot said he cut ties with Roskind because he disagrees with the deputy’s confrontational approach.

“He was in support of Sheriff Bart, but not of the prosecutor’s office, and definitely not of the county leadership. In fact, he’s mentioned several times that our county leadership is corrupt, and on the take, and under investigation by the FBI,” Talbot said.

It appears to be an investigation of Roskind’s own making.

In July 2001, Roskind wrote to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, complaining about the number of deputies. He also asserted that the county had made improper deals on purchases of park lands.

The FBI assigned three agents, Roskind said, but the investigation was sidelined after Sept. 11, 2001.

FBI policy is to not disclose whether it is, or is not, investigating anything.

But Bart said he found somebody at the FBI who acknowledged that the feds had taken a look, but never made it a priority.

Roskind complained about the same land-use issues in an August 2001 letter he sent the state auditor.

Auditors examined the county’s property purchases. They tested some of Roskind’s assumptions, and determined that the deputy appeared to have misinterpreted public records, documents show.

Bart admits that the department is monitoring Roskind and what he is saying.

So far, it appears the deputy is keeping legally sufficient separation between his public and private activities, Bart said.

The county isn’t doing the same, said Roskind’s attorney, Peter Cogan of Seattle. Roskind’s federal lawsuit alleges his promotion was thwarted by changes made to the sheriff’s sergeant test.

The changes were made long before Roskind started speaking out, but the deputy’s activism all but guaranteed he would be passed over, Cogan said.

“What we are talking about here is basically retaliation for protected speech,” he said.

* * *

In November, Roskind helped organize a political action committee called LAW-BAC, or Law Enforcement Alliance With Business and Citizens. He’s the treasurer and maintains the group’s Web site.

One of LAW-BAC’s first activities was to arrange December’s picketing at Shell gas stations in Lynnwood, Bothell and south Everett. The group was upset that some stores were selling items that could be used for smoking drugs.

Shell wound up dropping business connections with two stations. But after the protest, some of Roskind’s closest allies severed ties to him as well.

Susan York of Mukilteo is one of the founders of Lead On America, a coalition of people who have succeeded in driving drug houses from their Snohomish County neighborhoods. York said Shell was just as alarmed as her group when told that some of its stations were selling drug paraphernalia.

Corporate officials immediately ordered the items removed. A Shell representative met with York and discussed providing financial support for drug education.

Then Roskind got involved.

“Within a week, Mike had made it an erupting volcano,” York said.

Roskind wanted confrontation, she said. He sent e-mails to Shell and others, accusing the company of pushing the legalization of drugs in America.

His evidence: Shell has some owners who are Dutch; drugs are legal in the Netherlands; therefore Shell must be trying to force legalization here.

Shell does have headquarters in the Netherlands, but “to assert that because of that there is an intention by Shell to legalize drugs in the United States is absurd and laughable,” Shell spokesman Cameron Smyth said.

York said she feels an opportunity was lost to enhance community awareness about drug problems. She now believes it was a mistake to work with Roskind.

“He is in uniform, and when I look at somebody in uniform, I have respect, I have admiration, I have trust,” York said.

Roskind stands by it all: the attack on Shell, his conspiracy talk, his legal entanglements and estrangements.

“I’ve stepped so far out of the social norm it is unbelievable, and I know that,” the deputy said. “I knew I would take heat. I prefer not to. I am not willing to stand back while people get hurt.”

Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431

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