PORT ANGELES — Clallam County law enforcement discourages armed citizens from showing up at protests, Sheriff Bill Benedict said.
Commissioner Mark Ozias said he had fielded concerns about groups or individuals acting as vigilantes. He invited the elected sheriff to a public conversation about policing in a time of political unrest.
“We do not want citizens arming themselves and coming to our assistance,” Benedict told commissioners in their Monday work session.
“I can’t think of a scarier scenario than to have untrained, armed citizens leaving their homes to come try to help law enforcement.
“We don’t want that,” Benedict added. “As a matter of fact, we will take a very, very dim view of people showing up armed offering to help us.”
Ozias requested the meeting to discuss law enforcement capacity and where the line is drawn between protected First Amendment speech and speech that crosses a legal threshold into harassment, intimidation or incitement to violence.
Clallam County made national headlines in June when a multi-racial Spokane family that was suspected of being part of the antifa movement was harassed on a camping trip to the West End. Facebook posts had erroneously said antifa was busing members onto the North Olympic Peninsula.
Social justice protests that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police were largely peaceful in Clallam County.
However, a Clallam Bay man, Jeffery Dunn, 24, was charged with a hate crime and three counts of fourth-degree assault for allegedly throwing eggs at Black Lives Matter protesters while yelling racial and homophobic slurs July 13.
Dunn has pleaded not guilty.
“As we’ve seen incidences in Forks and Port Angeles and other places,” Ozias told Benedict, “I just wanted to make sure that you had a chance to talk a little bit about the professional law enforcement community here in Clallam County.”
“As far as I’m concerned, county residents have a lot of be proud of with regard to our county Sheriff’s Department and everyone who works there,” Ozias added.
Benedict, whose office is non-partisan, acknowledged a “huge partisan divide” in the nation.
“There’s concern on the one hand that there is anarchy, and law enforcement won’t have the ability to contain, let’s say, civil unrest,” Benedict said.
“And there’s concern that there’s going to be vigilante groups running around imposing their will on the people.
“I’d like to assure you that, as long as I’m sheriff, neither one of those scenarios will take place,” Benedict said.
Benedict, a former Navy fighter pilot who was elected sheriff in 2006, said he could not recall a time when the national political temperature was running so hot.
“It’s not local, or, for that matter, state politics, that has gotten this thing heated up,” Benedict said.
“To be honest with you, it’s the election. It’s the partisan divide.”
Benedict emphasized that local law enforcement meets high standards of crisis intervention training and de-escalation tactics.
The Sheriff’s Office and the Port Angeles and Sequim police departments each have been accredited by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“We absolutely and totally support First Amendment rights, and that includes the right for people to assemble and to protest,” Benedict said.
“If we deploy when there are protesters out there, it is only to protect the protesters and potentially to protect the public.
“If there’s groups of protesters and counter-protesters, we’ll do everything we can to keep it civil, and, if necessary, keep them apart,” he added.
The Sheriff’s Office works closely with local, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies and relies on State Patrol swat teams, Benedict said.
The Washington State Fusion Center in Seattle, which was created after 9/11, monitors social media about potentially violent incidents.
“We’re in a new era with social media and how quickly groups can mobilize on all sides of the political spectrum, and I might add that they almost always get mobilized on incorrect information,” Benedict said.
“I do not have the capability, nor the desire, to be looking into social media accounts of our residents,” he added.
Clallam County Chief Criminal Sheriff’s Deputy Brian King said local residents are encouraged to share concerns about public safety.
Every tip the Sheriff’s Office receives is investigated, King said.
“I think the proof is in the pudding that we haven’t really had any major problems,” King said.
The Sheriff’s Office had met with protesters prior to peaceful demonstrations in recent months.
“The rules of engagement have been discussed, and I think that it’s important to note that everybody’s lived up to the terms of those rules of engagement,” King said.
“We’ve not had to have great law enforcement presence in any of these events.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].