Among the more contentious races in Snohomish County this election has been that for the sheriff’s office, with the county’s top law enforcement official since 2013 challenged by a deputy sergeant and union president.
The campaign boils down to a referendum regarding the record of Sheriff Ty Trenary and his policy reforms and initiatives over nearly six years and the change that challenger Adam Fortney says is necessary to allow the department’s employees to do their jobs.
The county sheriff oversees more than 700 employees in the department’s patrol, corrections and other units. And, paired with the county’s court system, makes up more than three-quarters of the county budget.
Both men have long and impressive careers in law enforcement, both mainly in Snohomish County.
Trenary has 30 years in policing, beginning with the Eatonville Police Department, then a move to Snohomish County in the ’90s. He served with the sheriff’s department as Stanwood’s police chief beginning in 2008, and was then appointed sheriff in 2013, winning election with 53 percent support to complete that term in 2014 and reelection, unopposed, in 2015.
Trenary has a bachelor’s degree in criminal science and is a graduate of Northwestern University’s School of Police Staff and Command.
Fortney has 23 years in law enforcement, all as a deputy sheriff with the county, including 10 years with the K-9 unit, five years on the SWAT team and union president for 12 years. Fortney is a Navy veteran.
Fortney is clear that he supports many of the reforms undertaken by Trenary, in particular patrols that team deputies with social workers to get those with addictions into treatment. Fortney, in fact, praised the work of the sheriff in his first year. But over following years, Fortney, especially as union president, has found disagreement with his boss, specifically over what he criticizes as Trenary’s “catch and release” policy regarding some arrested for misdemeanors, such as car prowls, but then rejected for booking into the county jail.
Trenary has often been quoted as saying that the county “won’t arrest its way out of the opioid crisis,” and that ethic has guided many of his reforms and initiatives. He doesn’t dispute that some brought to the jail are denied booking and released back onto the streets. Those who are released are nonviolent offenders and don’t pose a danger to others; often they are intoxicated on heroin or other opioids and have one or more other health concerns.
The disagreement between the candidates comes down to use of resources and that policy’s consequences.
Fortney holds that the practice is lowering morale among deputies and sends the wrong message to the community and to offenders, especially those with addictions, by enforcing the perception that they have escaped consequences.
Trenary said the turn-aways are infrequent; of the 26,000 to 28,000 bookings each year, those released represent about 2 percent of those brought to the jail, on average about one or two each day. When offenders are turned away, Trenary said, it’s because the jail and its medical and mental health units are over capacity.
The frustration of deputies and the public with a policy that sometimes releases those arrested for misdemeanors is understandable, but Trenary is right that booking everyone arrested isn’t a responsible use of resources and leaves the jail open to liability. If booking everyone was effective, Trenary said, the opioid crisis would have been solved long ago.
The coordinated approach by the sheriff’s office and others in the county, however, is working. Trenary points to more than 1,000 people who have been led into treatment and recovery in recent years.
Management of the jail has been problematic for the county for many years, specifically regarding the number of deaths in the jail. Between 2010 and 2014, 13 people died during or after stays within the jail’s walls. The county recently agreed to a $3.1 million settlement with the family of Piper Travis, a 34-year-old woman, who, last December, died of meningitis, sepsis and respiratory distress in the hospital after a two-week stay in the jail; family alleged in the lawsuit that Travis was denied proper and timely medical care.
Trenary has been candid about the jail’s problems and its responsibility, telling the editorial board: “You don’t settle for $3.1 million when you did everything right.”
Trenary has implemented reforms at the jail, which includes reviews into the circumstances when a jail death occurs to determine if discipline, additional training and other steps are necessary. Among other reforms at the jail, working with corrections and law enforcement associations, he has started medically assisted detox and treatment for inmates and worked to improve medical care there.
Beyond corrections, Trenary has had other accomplishments worth noting.
He created the agency’s Office of Neighborhoods, which includes the social worker patrols that started with county deputies and Everett’s police department and have since been adopted by several cities in the county. Trenary, teaming with the county’s Human Services department, also created a diversion center, a short-term shelter that connects homeless and addicted adults with treatment and other help.
And Trenary has been key in the county’s Opioid Response Multi-Agency Coordination effort to team the sheriff’s office with the county health district, county council and county executive’s office on responses to the opioid crisis.
The sheriff also has worked to gain the trust of the county council and county executive, among other officials in the county, and has been able to get increased funding for his budget to add patrol deputies, improve medical care at the jail and most recently to look at moving precinct locations to better serve communities.
Fortney’s desire to serve his community and his fellow deputies is clear. By challenging his boss for the sheriff’s office he’s shown courage and commitment. And he’s fostered a needed discussion about recent reforms in the office, at the jail and regarding the county’s response to addiction, homelessness and crime.
But after that discussion, the conclusion should be that Trenary has the sheriff’s office and the jail on the correct path and should be given another four years to lead the office, its deputies and its employees.