By The Herald Editorial Board
The race to lead the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office provides voters with a choice of two experienced law enforcement officers, both with decades of service to the sheriff’s office, dedication to the public and general agreement about the importance of public safety and the office’s need for accountability and service but diverging perspectives on the incumbent’s three-plus years of tenure and their approach to the job.
Adam Fortney has 27 years with the sheriff’s office, serving as a “graveyard patrol sergeant” and president of the deputy sheriff’s union before mounting a campaign that challenged and defeated the six-year incumbent in 2019 with 55 percent of the vote to then-Sheriff Ty Trenary’s 44 percent.
He is challenged by Susanna Johnson, who served 30 years with the sheriff’s office, before leaving in 2020 with the intention of retiring. Two years ago she was recruited by the Bothell Police Department and hired as a captain and has since been promoted to deputy chief.
Both candidates were interviewed jointly by the editorial board in September.
From the start Fortney’s tenure as sheriff has been controversial. Just days after taking office, Fortney rehired three deputies who had been fired by Trenary. The first, Art Wallin, had been fired in October 2019 for violating department policy in pursuing and fatally shooting a 24-year-old Edmonds man. Fortney then rehired two more deputies, Matt Boice and Evan Twedt, who had been dismissed by Trenary, again for policy violations, conducting a warrantless search of a vehicle, then attempting to cover up how the search was handled.
Fortney defends the rehiring of all three deputies, specifically pointing to the conclusion this August of a investigation by the state Criminal Justice Training Commission regarding Wallin, that found that while the separate investigations and decisions of Trenary and Fortney came to opposite conclusions — each “supported with facts and reasoning” — the commission would have difficulty in proving that Wallin had violated department policies and would take no further action.
Before being reinstated, both Boice and Twedt were placed on a list — called a Brady list for a U.S. Supreme Court case — held by the county prosecutor, of law enforcement officers whose testimony in court cases could be called into question because of alleged misstatements and violations of policies and defendants’ rights. Fortney called the deputies’ firings political payback for their support of his campaign.
Fortney defended his tenure and his record and stands by his past comments to the public and the media, but admitted there were times when he could have worded things differently early in his work as sheriff.
“I think I was too political at that moment,” he said.
Among his successes Fortney lists the department’s meeting a goal this year to hire 100 employees in patrol, corrections and other positions; the work of the department’s Office of Public Accountability; efforts to earn re-accreditation by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs; his creation of the LEAD the Way program, an eight-week course of outreach to youths who have been arrested or are at-risk; the department’s creation of a crime report “dashboard”; and community events with restaurants and other businesses to build connections and trust with the public.
As expected of a political opponent, Johnson questions details in that record.
On hiring, when asked about open positions within the office, Fortney said he had openings for 24 patrol deputies and about 45 corrections deputies, but Johnson later said that as of the date of the interview, the department actually had openings for 31 patrol deputy positions, 51 corrections positions and a total of 115 vacancies.
Johnson also has questioned Fortney’s attention to earning timely re-accreditation of the office. The Sheriff’s Office was last accredited by WASPC in 2017, and was due for a re-accreditation process that was to be completed by the fall of 2021.
WASPC 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 settlements and can potentially reduce liability insurance costs.
Fortney said the process has faced delays, caused by incomplete reporting of standards for 2017, 2018 and 2019, when Trenary was sheriff. But an email to Fortney from the association notes that 2020’s review also was incomplete, and the office appears to have missed its window for re-accreditation this year, as it lacks proof of compliance for 2022. The deadline for the process passed this month.
Johnson said much of what the department appears to lack is a timely update of policy to reflect changes in state law adopted in recent years.
The office can seek re-accreditation in 2024, the email to Fortney says.
Johnson doesn’t fault Fortney’s community outreach work, and agrees with its value, particularly events such as the National Night Out.
“We’ve done those things over the years,” she said. “I agree it’s important, but it’s not like we haven’t done that stuff before.”
And while the office’s crime dashboard is providing useful data on incidents and statistics, Fortney has dropped other tools that could help the public better understand its safety needs, the available resources and provide more accountability, including an annual report that Fortney ended in 2020. In lieu of the multi-page report with crime data, budget details and information on investigations of alleged misconduct, the department created a 21-minute YouTube video for 2020 with no crime data or other reports.
Johnson intends to use a program offered by a company called Police Strategies that tracks crime statistics, complaints, vehicle collisions, pursuits and instances of use of force, that would provide even more data and greater transparency.
During her 33 years of law enforcement experience, Johnson climbed the ranks 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. The 12-week program, Johnson said, is considered the “gold standard” for law enforcement executives and requires a nomination to attend. Only one-half of 1 percent of law enforcement executives are nominated, she said.
Fortney acknowledged the differences in his and Johnson’s backgrounds, experience and approach within the department, but said he ran in 2019 out of concern for the direction that internal policies were taking the department. He’s worked to correct that and wants to continue that effort, noting that he has already accomplished what Johnson has promised to do.
Johnson said she would prioritize evidence-based policing focused on community policing and targeted patrols and crime prevention, a strengthening of the county’s Office of Neighborhoods to partner with social workers on mental health issues but would also focus on rebuilding public trust to provide greater accountability and transparency.
“We need to work on changing the culture and coming back to our oath of office. This is where the key is, back to that service mentality,” she said. “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.”
Any sheriff during the last four years would have faced significant challenges, not the least of which were a pandemic that put officers in harm’s way and complicated their work, and the tumult of protests and reforms that followed the murder of George Floyd, further forcing changes to how that work is scrutinized and accomplished.
Those challenges remain and require leaders — in this case the county’s top law enforcement official — who can draw from considerable experience, impressive training and professional demeanor to set standards for deputies and employees, track crime and social trends to design effective responses, and provide for the safety of employees and that of the public.
Susanna Johnson should be entrusted with that work.
Nov. 7 Election
Ballots for Snohomish County voters have been mailed, and must be returned to ballot drop boxes or mailed by 8 p.m. Nov. 7. The county voters guides were mailed Oct. 18, and are available online at tinyurl.com/SnoCoVoterGuide23. More information on the election, ballot drop box locations and registering to vote is available at tinyurl.com/SnoCoVote23.