FORKS — Legislative changes have made the job of policing more difficult, Clallam County’s new sheriff told a gathering at a Forks Chamber of Commerce meeting.
“Our Legislature had good intentions,” said Sheriff Brian King, who took office this month after he was elected in November, on Wednesday.
“Prior to the new laws, we had felony possession. We looked at the offender’s score and had a successful drug court. We had a 30 percent success rate.”
Now people aren’t even hiding their drug use, he said, adding that it is in the street, parks, and even across the street from his home in Port Angeles.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs is urging legislators to bring back balance in several areas, according to King.
The present legislative session in Olympia began Jan. 9. It will end April 24.
The state Supreme Court’s Blake Decision on Feb. 25, 2021 ruled that the state’s simple drug possession law was unconstitutional.
The Legislature re-criminalized it with the passage of ESB 5476. The changes make possession crimes misdemeanors with mandatory diversion to services for at least the first two occasions, according to ACLU Washington.
“Now we have to hand them a piece of paper three times,” King said. “It is not working.”
“This has created a quagmire, this reform movement.”
Fentanyl is an epidemic, King said.
“It took it a while to get here. It is deadly stuff, and it is here,” he said.
In 2021, the sheriff’s office seized 279 pills and in 2022, 20,000 pills.
“Drugs drive crimes,’ King said. “If we could take away the drugs maybe we wouldn’t need the jail.”
Poor laws have had consequences, he said.
“Now that we can’t arrest people for drugs, we can’t get them in jail and help them,” King said.
“Jail is where they start to think, get a clearer mind and their behavior can be monitored.”
Some 350 people have been treated in the jail, he added.
But jail is expensive.
“It costs taxpayers $150 per inmate per day,” King said.
Many have behavioral health issues.
“Fifty percent of the people in jail appear to be dealing with mental health issues,” King said.
“We used to be able to hold about 140 prisoners. Now with the mental health problem, we can only hold 120. Many can’t mix with the general population and have to be isolated. Some are so dangerous we can’t even go in their cell,” he explained.
“Our state is failing,” King said.
“There is a lack of services and no place for those with mental health issues to go.
“It is a revolving door … then back in jail.”
One major concern of law enforcement is pursuits.
Police reform legislation passed in 2021 includes the requirement that pursuits must be preceded by permission from a supervisor and must be engaged in with supervisory control. They are allowed only if the officer has probable cause to believe the person has committed a violent offense, sex offense or an escape offense; if the officer suspects the person has or is driving under the influence; or if the person poses an imminent threat to public safety.
“We are a society of rules, and when law enforcement is behind you on the road, they turn their lights on, and you pull over. Well, that doesn’t happen anymore,” King said Wednesday.
He said that deputies averaged about six pursuits a year. In the past 15 years King said that there have been no injuries that resulted from pursuits.
“People who don’t stop are usually doing bad things,” King said.
A recent pursuit involved a drive-by shooting in Port Angeles.
“Police officers now have to ask themselves, can I pursue or not,” King said.
“We were able to make an arrest in that pursuit. Drugs, guns and cash were in that vehicle.”
“Pursuits are dangerous, but police are highly trained. We know when to discontinue,” King added.
King said that during his 27 years dedicated to law enforcement — which included service with the La Push and Forks police departments — his highest goal has been safe communities.
“I want to make sure Clallam County is safe,” he said.
King said he needs the funding and manpower to do that.
“In 2001 when I started with the sheriff’s office there were 200 people in line for the jobs. That is not the case now,” King said.
Now the number of applicants for Clallam County Sheriff’s Office jobs is closer to 10 and nine of the 10 often can’t pass the background check, he said.
The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office currently has 98 employees with 11 spots open.
“We are constantly recruiting,” King said.
The department’s 120 volunteers bring such skills as radio knowledge and search-and-rescue abilities.
“The volunteers put us above the rest,” King said.
“The level of responsibility is on me,” he said. “If I am not doing a good job then don’t re-elect me, but I need the tools to do a good job and the recent actions by the Legislature are affecting that.”
“We need to get back to safe communities,” he said.
”Washington state has the lowest officer-to-citizen ratio in the country.”
King suggested that the state has the money to return sales tax, 1/10th of 1 percent, back to the county to help with law enforcement.
“The state has the money,” he said. “Put it back for criminal justice.”
King concluded: “My pitch today is for you to email your legislator, and let them know your opinion.”
Christi Baron is the editor of the Forks Forum, which is part of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach her at email@example.com.