Common Threads Northwest spoke with Sheriff Bill Elfo, who is running for re-election for Whatcom County Sheriff, on August 29, 2019.
CTNW: Why are you qualified to run for Whatcom County Sheriff?
Sheriff Elfo: I've been your sheriff for the last 15 years, and I think I've accomplished a lot. I work with very limited resources to bring high-quality services to the people in the community and keep them safe, and that's built on a decades-long career in law enforcement where I've worked in virtually every facet of municipal law enforcement. Internally I’ve worked in every position including being a police chief, a prosecutor, and as a deputy city attorney. I've been president of the [Washington] State Sheriffs' Association. I've completed the FBI Command College, the Department of Justice, the National Sheriff’s Institute and the Southern Police Institute for high level law enforcement executive training. I believe I'm well qualified. I'm certified not only as a general-authority peace officer, but I also have the executive-level certification from the State of Washington.
CTNW: What does the basic police academy cover?
Elfo: It covers law, patrol procedures, criminal procedure, and dealing with people with mental health issues force de-escalation and many other critical skills necessary for someone serving in law enforcement or overseeing law enforcement activities. I was on the Commission that oversaw training, and I am vice chair of that commission. I’m familiar with all these areas and completed all of the basic requirements and more. It is important that someone seeking to serve as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the County understands the very critical work our deputies and officers carry out every day.
CTNW: And you said that you had some executive-level certification. What was different about that?
Elfo: Well you must be able show that you have education. I have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, a master's degree in criminal justice, I have a juris doctorate, and I'm a member of the Washington State Bar [inactive] as well as the bar in several federal jurisdictions and several other states.
CTNW: What skills and attributes are needed to be a sheriff?
Elfo: To be a sheriff you must be a leader and you must have credibility. And to achieve that, you must have worked in law enforcement. You need the people in your organization to trust you, follow you, and you need the people in the community to know that you have a broad-based understanding of public safety; that you're not someone coming in on day one and trying to effectuate the duties of sheriff without a high level of experience, skill and competence.
CTNW: What are the current statistics and challenges facing the local sheriff’s department?
Elfo: A lot of the job, you know, is law and order, and I'm proud to say that the crime rates have dropped dramatically since I've been in office. Violent crime is down 24 percent, property crime is down 44 percent, and burglaries are down 63 percent. The crime trends are coming down. We've eradicated the leadership of some of the major gangs that were preying on our community less than a decade ago. We've built relationships with the federal and state authorities. One white supremacists’ organization here was involved in drug trafficking and various types of frauds to fund their habits or their agenda. The leader of the white supremacists went to prison for 27 years. So those and the kinds of examples we must make to stop them from not only committing crimes but luring our children into a criminal life.
The biggest challenge I see we're facing is mental health and substance abuse. We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of 9-1-1 calls that directly relate to someone in a mental health crisis often fueled by a co-concurrent substance abuse disorder. We've had to shift gears to deal with mental health and substance abuse. We've started doing a better job of measuring these cases or tracking them, and we noted a 33 percent increase from 2016 to 2018. One of the things we've done to deal with that is we formed a behavioral health and crisis intervention deputy unit. The deputies are specially trained in working with people who are in a serious or acute mental health crisis. The deputies help with getting them into treatment, getting services, and working with the county's GRACE Program. We try to hit it all. The biggest challenge is that we're ready, willing, and able to help, but sometimes the resources just aren't available. We've been involved in the planning — something that's been talked about for over 20 years — the need for a behavioral health crisis stabilization center — and it's been proposed for years under different names, but the latest vernacular is "crisis stabilization center." It's really coming to fruition.
CTNW: You're doing that out at that Bakerview area?
Elfo: Well it's a Health Department program, and it's going to be done out on Division Street on part of the property they bought for the interim jail facility. It's a separate building though, and they'll have 32 beds. I know they're planning on breaking ground soon. It's so important that law enforcement have relationships with the treatment community and the social service community. There must be somewhere an officer can take someone to and have assurances they're going to be taken care of adequately; that the public's going to be protected, and they (the officer) will no be there for 8 to 9 hours. The officers need to get back out to keep serving the community and answer more calls.
We're proud of our crisis intervention deputy program, which has been so successful that it's been acclaimed by the treatment providers, the families of the people that are in crisis, and the people themselves. We're doubling that program. We'll probably be adding a second deputy in September.
CTNW: You've got a workforce of deputies. How large is that and is it adequately funded?
Elfo: From the Sheriff on down there's 90 law enforcement personnel — commissioned law enforcement people — to cover 2,500 square miles, and the largest population in the county. Most people live in the unincorporated areas, and we service these remote areas like Point Roberts, Newhalem, and Diablo. We also handle our county-wide responsibilities: we're responsible for supporting small city police, all city police departments, and we operate a gang and drug task force. We're always challenged with personnel, but I think the council in recent years has been supportive of adding people particularly when we can show that we're out at John Smith's house 40 times a year because of some mental health crisis. If we could be more effective in getting him into treatment and solving the problem, that cuts down on the volume. And one of the things that we're benefiting from in having a crisis intervention deputy is there'll be a male and a female deputy to work with the other deputies to raise awareness that alternatives are available.
CTNW: Sort of an in-house training?
Elfo: Yes, and we do that as part of our in-service annual training, but we'll have them more involved on a day-to-day basis. They're also helping the small cities get those folks trained up. We found that 60 percent of the cases the crisis intervention deputy handles come from other deputies—"hey, we've been out here six times, we think they're escalating, they're dangerous, we need to see what we can do"—and about 40 percent come directly from responding to 9-1-1 calls. We can't keep up with the amount of demand there is so we're adding an extra deputy, and we're fortunate that the county executive and the county council supported funding that as well.
CTNW: Everybody knows that the jail itself is an issue. Are you getting proper support from the county council regarding making it as safe as possible?
Elfo: My job is to operate the jail. It's the county executive and the facilities department under that office who are responsible for all the maintenance, repairs, and the ongoing extra things. There was a period when maintenance was ignored, but when Executive Louws came on, he made it a priority to take care of some major health and safety issues within the facility. We've replaced all the windows in the jail and the electronic control system. They're now in the process of replacing the cell doors. And they're also in the process of putting in a deluge system to provide better capability to control and prevent fires. Smoke inhalation a would be a big problem in the event of a fire and it isa major issue is that the jail doesn't have a smoke evacuation system. We're doing all we can to keep it as safe as possible. Recently the [county] council passed a resolution with a 7-0 vote to simultaneously increase the diversion of the services that are available for people in mental health or substance abuse crises and approved a resolution that recognizes the need to replace the facility and enhance behavioral health services. They plan to work on and finalize these needs through a need’s assessment.
CTNW: They're going to ask the voters to fund it again?
Elfo: I believe they are, and I don't think it'll be a similar proposal to what came out before. I think the plan generally is to keep the work center, which was intended as a 5-to-6-year facility, on Division Street and to replace the downtown jail. However, their decision will likely be based on a need’s assessment.
CTNW: In downtown?
Elfo: That was the stated preference, but that's not been resolved.
CTNW: Okay, so the property that they purchased, is that gone now?
Elfo: No, they still own that property. I think they're going to put out requests for for a qualified jail planner, to look at how we could divert people to reduce demand for the jail and make recommendations for siting the new facility.
CTNW: Okay, so they (the council) prefer to rebuild the existing facility, but they still have the other property, and will be asking the jail planner for recommendations on what is the best path forward?
Elfo: I can’t speak to issues that are still in draft format, but I think the plan is to bring several alternatives forward for them to decide.
CTNW: From your perspective, since you have to not only oversee all of the law enforcement officers and what happens in the jail, do you see any other needs or ways to have a faster, safer response for people, since you're dealing with the entire rural county area? Response time and things of that nature?
Elfo: We've done a lot to do that. The deputies used to come into the courthouse to change shifts three times a day. And so, three times a day would be a good time to rob a bank out in the county, right? Because everybody's downtown. So now we work with local schools and the fire districts to get use as satellite offices. They generally begin and end their shifts in the area where they're assigned, so there's an efficiency gained there. But they also have a place to muster for meetings, training, and those type of
things needs. We also started a neighborhood deputy program several years ago. We have areas of operation from Birch Bay, the greater Blaine area, Sudden Valley, Glenhaven, Lake Samish, Kendal, Maple Falls, Paradise, Point Roberts, Newhalem, and Diablo. Some of these locations have unique geographical issues, so we assign a deputy to those areas for 40 hours a week, and then they can flex their time to deal with any emerging issues that come up in those areas. They're still part of one of our patrol areas, but by having neighborhood deputies, we able to get on top of things a lot quicker. So that's a big help. When where these neighborhood deputy programs are set up, they're able to respond, and that frees up the other deputies to work the greater patrol sector that may be, as in one case, 300 square miles. To focus on areas outside of where [the neighborhood deputies] are working has really made an improvement [to other areas] as well.
We also have a reserve deputy program, so when they work, we have a reserve and a regular deputy in the car. That avoids having to pull a deputy in Birch Bay to back up somebody in the Lynden area, because there are already two deputiesin the car. So those are some of the things that we’re done.
CTNW: Any other programs you'd like to implement?
Elfo: Well, yes. There's a lot we're working on that we want to expand. With the jail in the condition it's in, and the capacity issues, we've set population-control measures, and when we're full we send people to out-of-area jails out of necessity. That's not my top preference, to send people away, but for safety issues and legal requirements on conditions of confinement, we must do that for the time being. I’ve developed a great relationship with all the judges to work with them within the courts to get out ahead of this by moving cases more quickly and keeping jail space available for when it's needed. It's a very valuable and limited resource so we want to use it wisely. We worked with the Whatcom County District Court and implemented a pre-trial electronic home monitoring service for the court; we’ve absorbed most of the costs into our existing budget as far as personnel, but the court pays for the equipment. So previously we would only use electronic home monitoring for people that have been convicted, and that's a much more intense program where if someone violates it, then we go out and pick them up. So, because we're able to install this equipment [on pre-trial defendants], and if there's a violation, we then report it to the court, and the judge will decide what the sanction will be; to summon the people into court, or tell us to go pick them up and bring them to the jail.
CTNW: These are essentially people who have...
Elfo: Misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.
CTNW: But they're considered more of a flight risk, and if there was capacity at the jail they might be being kept there?
Elfo: Yeah, they would otherwise be in jail. We've saved 10,869 days of jail time for the first four months of 2019 compared with the same period in 2018. That's huge. We're talking about $123 a day ifthey have acute [forms of ]mental illness in the main jail, versus $8 to 14 a day on electronic home monitoring. We rent the equipment we use, and it's supervised by a quasi-governmental agency, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, who oversee the equipment end of it. We also have equipment we can use if there's concern about someone using alcohol or drugs. This equipment can assess, monitor, and report alcohol or drug use. When there's a concern that involves an inmate, who could harass victims or witnesses, we put a fence on that equipment to make sure that we're notified if they go outside the boundary. We're making do the best we can with the technology available; it's saving the taxpayers money and reserving the jail space for when we mostneed it.
We also have, bar none, the most robust jail alternatives program in the state. We have work release, where people who are remanded to the jail and keep their job. Inmates can go out and work their job or go to school and come back at night. But they first must be appropriately classified. The same thing applies to the electronic home monitoring, they first must meet certain requirements for public safety. We also have work crews that stay at the jail work center. Work crews go out in the daytime and do work throughout the state, county, city, parks, as well as for the forest service. They also maintain the grounds around the courthouse. We have between 6 and 8 crews that go out everyday to perform the work. We also have an out-of-custody work crew that comes in the daytime. They report to the jail in the daytime, go out to do the work, report back to the jail, and are then released back to their family. We've worked hard to be creative, so, for example, if you get sentenced for a DUI, you have to serve 10 days; if you have a job, and you have some form or transportation, we'll say, “okay, will you come in on Tuesdays and Wednesdays when you are off work?” You come in and work with us on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and just complete your sentence over a longer period. This way they won't lose everything because they still have their job and can still support their family. We try to be flexible. When people ask, “what programs do you use?” Well, we work to tailor the program to the individual to help ensure that they're more likely to succeed in serving their sentence and not lose housing and relationship critical in preventing recidivism.
CTNW: Back to the work force. Are there any issues with retention of work force? I know regarding a lot of local police departments, their staff are retiring and leaving faster than they can fill up the slots. Is that an issue with our sheriff’s department?
Elfo: We're very fortunate to have officers from other agencies that want to work for the sheriff’s office. We have people that come from King and Snohomish County where they make a lot more money, but because they recognize the quality of life here and the opportunities we have at the Sheriff’s office, they want to be here. We try to make it a good workplace, but at the same time, we have very, very demanding standards to get hired and be retained. When we hire through our civil service process, we might hire one in every 40 people that apply. Our process starts out with a written test, a physical agility test, an oral board, and then it goes to the psychological test — an all-day psychological test — and then polygraph. Then there's an exhaustive background check. We try to weed out anybody we don't think is suited for or fit for this type of work. And of course, we look for people that have relevant work experience. They can bring their skills or their education to bear on the type of work that we do at the sheriff’s office. We have a very low turnover rate in our deputies.
Where we have slightly higher turnover is in the jail with corrections. We have a wonderful team up there and they work well together, but a lot of them are young people that are trying to get their foot in the door, they’re trying to gain experience, and then they want to move on to be police officers or deputy sheriffs. We ask for a 3-year commitment, and sometimes when that commitment time is up and we don't have a [law enforcement] opening, so they'll go somewhere else. Some of them do come back. So, it's not all loss. It’s great experience and we appreciate that experience when hiring a deputy for patrol who has been a deputy in the local jail.
CTNW: Washington State have put in gun laws that conflict with the U.S. Constitution. How does that affect you, because you are guided more by federal law than you are by state law, yes?
Elfo: Well we're guided by both really, unless the federal law preempts the state law. Then you have constitutional issues. Those are issues that are still working their way through the courts who are going to have to boil it all down. We'll see exactly where we are with those later. There is a law that if someone leaves a firearm in a manner that's negligent, and the firearm is used in a crime or commits harm, there's criminal liability. Well there's already criminal liability for that under the reckless endangerment statute, so, I have no problem enforcing it, but we're not going to be inspecting people's homes. We must confer with the prosecutor on every case because they're our legal advisors, and legal challenges are still winding their way through the courts. But there's other legislation that affected firearms.
CTNW: Yes, like the red flag laws that politicians are discussing.
Elfo: Well the one I'm thinking about relates to domestic violence where it requires the officer to seize any firearms that he sees on the premises. And my concern there, is if you follow that the way it's written — not maybe with the spirit of the law, but the letter of the law — we could be depriving a victim of a means of protection. We've had many domestic violence homicides where we've had situations in which people hadn't been able to protect themselves, and that really concerns me.
CTNW: The City of Bellingham has essentially passed some — I don't know if they're ordinances, regulations, or if they're just a resolution — but essentially making the City of Bellingham a kind of a sanctuary city without calling it a sanctuary city. And, the State of Washington’s [Governor] Inslee, signed an executive order which claims the state to be a sanctuary for illegal citizens. How does that affect you as a sheriff and our local Whatcom County Sheriffs Department? What can the residents expect from that?
Elfo: Well the State of Washington has severely curtailed how law enforcement is able to cooperate. I've never seen the role of the sheriff’s office as the immigration police. We have hundreds if not a thousand federal agents that are assigned to the county for that purpose. So, we're unique. We only have 90 employees, so we're not taking on immigration enforcement. And we also need people to feel free, if they're victims, or have information about crime, to come forward to report. But my biggest concern is when we have somebody in the jail that's been arrested for a serious criminal violation.
CTNW: Does that make it illegal for you to contact them [ICE]?
Elfo: On its face the law does make it illegal, and there may be exceptions embedded in the statute for criminal matters, so we're still actually looking at that. We've had to change our practices somewhat where you could call up and want to know when 'Jack X' is getting out of jail. The border patrol could call, or ICE could call at the same time and ask that same question. You know, we want to continue to cooperate to make sure our citizens aren't plagued by criminals, or turned loose and then chased through the streets, creating danger to everyone else when they're trying to take them into custody.
Our focus is on people that commit serious crimes here in our community. But some of the limitations of this law: we can't use the border patrol to interpret for us any longer. Previously, we didn't use them on a routine basis, but if there was an emergency, and you needed a Spanish-speaking interpreter, you could get one. We're trying to increase the number of languages the people we hire can speak and understand, but we don't always have it. We had a situation a few years back where a little 3-year-old girl was abducted. It was a border patrol agent that helped us, and because of this help we were able to get the description of the car out, and as we were getting ready to issue an Amber Alert, because we had sufficient information, one of our officers spotted and stopped the vehicle and got the child back. If that had to be delayed because we can't use the border patrol… those are things that I don't think the governor and public leaders have considered, which will affect public safety.
CTNW: What do you think that the readers or the voters want to know that we didn’t ask you?
Elfo: I want the voters to know that if I'm re-elected, we're going to maintain a very professional, disciplined, and capable law enforcement team. At the same time, we're going to strive to use best practices in the jail and also focus on treatment. We've started a medically assisted treatment program for people addicted to drugs withinthe jail. We have behavioral health specialists and still one of our biggest limitations is that there's no physical space to evaluate people, treat them, and house those who have these special needs. But we want to change lives for the better while we have them with us, to the extent that we can, and that's what we're going to continue to do.
Effective criminal justice—treating people humanely—is not a progressive issue and it's not a conservative issue. I think it's an issue that everybody can agree on. We must do better, and we must do more than what we're doing now. I'm proud to have the endorsement—I don't know if this has ever happened before—of each and every member of the county council, the county executive, the county prosecutor, and even the county public defender, because they know that I'm a reasonable person that can work with others and do what's right for our community.
You can find out more about Sheriff Bill Elfo's re-election campaign at www.sheriffelfo.com.