By The Herald Editorial Board
“Cops hate change,” said Sheriff-elect Susanna Johnson. “And they hate the way things are.”
As the incoming Snohomish County sheriff, that range of opinion is one of the challenges Johnson discussed in a recent interview with the editorial board as she starts work next month to head an agency of some 775 deputies, corrections officers and other employees, providing law enforcement and running a jail in a county of more than 850,000 people.
Johnson won election Nov. 7, in a close race with current Sheriff Adam Fortney. Johnson earned 51.5 percent of the vote in a race that earned significant attention. As with the department’s employees, Johnson will have work to do in winning support from the public.
To her advantage, the new sheriff won’t be an unknown quantity for most employees or the public. Currently the deputy chief for the Bothell Police Department for about two years, Johnson left the county sheriff’s office in 2020, intending to retire after a 30-year career, before agreeing to join the Bothell Police. She ran for sheriff in a bid to return to the department, intent on strengthening its professionalism, its transparency with the public and its commitment to public safety.
Johnson climbed the ranks with the department from patrol deputy, detective, K-9 handler, the first woman in the state to be trained for duty for a SWAT entry team in 1992, and later served as a SWAT squad leader. She served in ranks and positions from sergeant, lieutenant, captain and chief of operations for the department, the office’s No. 3 in command, supervising the operations of uniformed officers. Johnson also is a 2014 graduate of the FBI’s National Academy, which provides training in executive law enforcement leadership.
With county offices closed Jan. 1 for the New Year’s Day holiday, Johnson said she plans to start work the next day and has asked Snohomish Superior Court Judge Patrick Moriarty, who won reelection to his seat and campaigned with Johnson, to swear her in. Until then she’s continuing her work as deputy chief at the Bothell Police Department, assisting in the transition of her successor.
She’s also been meeting with community members and officials, the department’s unions and service providers in preparation. The outreach to the office’s deputies and other employees is ongoing and will continue into her tenure’s initial weeks, but is starting with the office’s leadership and those who will be serving on her appointed staff.
Johnson is realistic about the work ahead of her and the department. She’s identified a 90- to 100-day plan, but admits that some initiatives and goals could take a full four-year term to complete.
“I recognize the importance of taking the temperature in the room and not moving things so quickly,” she said.
Much of what she plans will depend on staffing; so a primary focus will be how quickly her office can hire deputies and other employees and how successful efforts are to retain current staff. Despite a strong pace of hiring in recent months, retention has been less successful, so she intends to look at the support and training that new hires are provided.
As well, she said she plans a bottom-to-top review of how the office’s patrol and other resources are deployed in the county.
Johnson said she’s supportive of continuing work to examine how excess capacity at the jail could be used as a facility for drug treatment, particularly important during a fentanyl crisis that has alarmed officials and the public in the county.
As to whether the jail remains under the authority of the sheriff’s office, Johnson said she’s aware of conversations about that proposal. Shortly after Sheriff Adam Fortney took office in 2020, County Executive Dave Somers floated the idea of separating the jail from the sheriff’s office, but the proposal was soon shelved.
Johnson didn’t take a position on the jail’s management either way.
“I know there’s always going to be that conversation,” Johnson said. “But as long as it’s my responsibility, I’m going to work really hard to do a good job there and make sure we have the right people” on staff.
Another significant task will be earning back accreditation for the office by the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. That accreditation, which reviews an agency’s policies and procedures and its adherence to standards, is considered important as a measure of accountability, can help build public confidence, can reduce risk of litigation and costly settlements and can potentially reduce liability insurance costs. And Johnson called it key to her plans to retain and attract deputies and other employees.
“When you’re out doing the job, you want to be surrounded by competent, well-trained people,” she explained. “So if you don’t have an ability to show that you’re following professional standards, it makes you concerned for your safety.”
WASPC recently was performing a file review regarding the office’s accreditation, and following a site inspection in January there’s a possibility that a decision could come by spring. If not successful in this round, Johnson said it would be a priority to successfully complete the process as soon as possible.
Recording and compiling data and statistics, then using that to direct resources and efforts also will get attention, she said. Fortney established an online crime data dashboard and the county prosecutor’s office also is setting up a similar effort. Johnson said she’s looking at a similar program in use by King County Sheriff’s Office and Kirkland Police Department. She also plans to resume a past practice in issuing an annual report, a practice that Fortney ended in 2020.
More broadly, however, Johnson sees a need to work on the relationship between law enforcement and the public it serves. That’s not a challenge for Snohomish County alone, but a shift seen nationally in recent years, she said, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and other use-of-force complaints and deaths and the protests and law enforcement reforms that followed. That has resulted in a “we vs. they split,” she said, making law enforcement’s job more difficult.
“That has created this sort of unnecessary divide between us in our community and us and people in Olympia or council members or representatives or senators,” she said. “My conversation with my peers is we need to look at the profession to see how we got where we’re at.”
She intends that effort to emphasize community outreach to reinforce connections with the public and instill confidence in the department’s work.
“Those agencies that are back to embracing community outreach, not only does it build up morale for those who serve and want to come to work again, but that does build that public trust,” she said. “There is a nexus between those relationships and a reduction in crime.”
In an interview prior to the editorial board’s endorsement of her candidacy, Johnson told the board: “We’re not at war with our community, and we shouldn’t be at war with the media, and we shouldn’t be at war with those folks who want to hold us accountable and look over our shoulder.”
Johnson, with more than 30 years of experience to guide her, recognizes the challenges and opportunities ahead of her in the next four years.
With mutual interests, her department’s employees and the public can join her in that outreach.