Port Townsend police to have backup from Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies

‘We don’t have a lot of other options’

Tom Olson.

Tom Olson.

PORT TOWNSEND — Policing in Port Townsend, in the wake of staff gaps, has become quite expensive.

In a unanimous vote Monday night, the Port Townsend City Council authorized an agreement to pay the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office $98.34 per hour to cover shifts for the Port Townsend Police Department.

“We don’t have a lot of other options,” Port Townsend Police Chief Tom Olson told the council.

That hourly wage — which rises to $121.63 per hour on holidays — is called the “fully loaded” rate because it includes a sheriff’s deputy’s pay plus benefits and county overhead, according to the city staff report.

Jefferson County Undersheriff Andy Pernsteiner said in an interview Tuesday that his department is asked to cover four to six shifts per week for the Port Townsend police force. The two law enforcement agencies have had an agreement since 2016; the one approved Monday by the council is an update, Pernsteiner added.

Council member Libby Wennstrom, during the pre-vote discussion, sought to find out how much these covered shifts will end up costing the city.

“You’re renting a temp, if you will,” which is more expensive than paying on-staff police officers, isn’t it, she asked Olson.

“Yes,” he replied; “a lot more.”

Next question, from council member Monica MickHager: How long will this go on?

“For the record, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Olson said, though he then estimated it will take 12 to 18 months to get city police staffing closer to where it needs to be.

If an officer gives two weeks’ notice today, the hiring, background checking and training of a replacement can easily take a year, he said.

“We’re budgeted for 15 [officers]. We had eight till last week. Now we have seven,” the chief told the council.

“We’ve got two in the academy … and we’re doing interviews for new-hire officers tomorrow,” he said, adding he’s also working on making a lateral hire of an experienced officer.

In an interview, Olson said a police officer had just given notice to take a sheriff’s deputy job in rural West Jefferson County, where housing is provided.

On the Port Townsend Police Department webpage, the annual salary range for a lateral hire is given at $71,240 to $78,811 — plus a $12,500 sign-on bonus. The department handles about 10,000 calls for service each year, the page notes.

Though neither Olson nor City Manager John Mauro gave specifics about the protracted costs of having county deputies cover so many city police shifts, they emphasized the need to support the police department — and the community.

“The most important thing in this is to have more than one officer working when at all possible,” Olson said.

The county “can’t even fill all of our vacant shifts right now … all of our officers, both county and city, are working a lot of overtime.

“When they are able to come work with us, we’re very happy about that, because it means it’s a little bit safer for the community and for our officers.”

Olson later told the Peninsula Daily News the reason for having backup: The use of force becomes more likely when only one officer is out there, he said. When two work together, that likelihood is reduced.

Wennstrom said she’d done a ride-along last week with a Port Townsend police officer — and “there was one person on duty,” working the street.

“I get that we’re at a staffing level that is not sustainable,” she said.

“We’ve got to do this. We want our community safe. If I call 9-1-1, I want somebody coming,” MickHager added.

Deputy Mayor Amy Howard noted that if the seven existing officers aren’t given backup from sheriff’s deputies — if they keep working overtime and alone — the city could lose them all and have an even worse problem.

Just before the council took its unanimous vote, Mayor David Faber noted one of the causes of this public safety dilemma: too little housing in Jefferson County. The shortage is having an intense effect on hospital and fire department staffs too, he said.

The police department’s predicament is just one more indication, Faber said, that “goes to show how significant a housing crisis we’re in right now, and how action is definitely needed.”

________

Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or durbanidelapaz@peninsuladailynews.com.

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