2009 in Review - Whatcom County Sheriff

Published on Wed, Dec 30, 2009 by Bill Elfo, Sheriff

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A downturn in the economy that is unprecedented in recent decades, has forced local and state officials to make difficult decisions regarding the level of service government will provide. 

In making these decisions, it is critical that officials prioritize the provision of mandated governmental services that essential to protecting the immediate safety of the public.

Last year, the state announced that, due to budget shortfalls, it would reduce prison sentences and eliminate supervision for some violent adult and juvenile offenders who have been released into our community. This trend is anticipated to expand in 2010 and will increase the number of dangerous offenders going on to commit new offenses.

Compounding the problem is the number of citizens with mental health issues who are prone to commit acts of violence and who do not have access to adequate treatment services.

These issues combined with increases in the incidence and severity of violent crime and gang activity, highlight the need to prioritize maintaining adequate law enforcement and law and justice services.

The problem is being driven home locally by an alarming increase in homicides, the severity of assaults and the need to summon out the Special Response Team to respond to situations involving armed criminals posing imminent threats to public safety.  Illustrating the increasing dangers and challenges law enforcement faces every day are the murders of seven officers in western Washington over the past 16 months.

Failing infrastructure and the lack of space in the overcrowded jail has resulted in dangerous conditions for deputies, inmates and the public. Major gaps in radio communications enhance dangers to deputies and citizens alike.

While effective law enforcement is needed in every community, the sheriff’s office has primary law enforcement responsibility for an area forty times larger than all cities combined and the county geography presents very unique challenges. 

The international border, Point Roberts and infrastructure and industry susceptible to disruption by terrorists including refineries, hydro-electric plants, pipelines and the I-5 corridor increase challenges.

The latest publication of the FBI Uniform Crime Report reflects that the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office ranks 27 out of 39 Washington state sheriff’s offices in terms of the ratio of deputies to citizens. 

The sheriff’s office ranks last among Whatcom County law enforcement agencies in term of the number of officers per citizen in our primary service area.

Next year, law enforcement and corrections staffing levels in Whatcom County will be further reduced. Furloughs, hiring freezes and an overall reduction in the funds available to respond to major crimes, emergencies and other contingencies will affect our ability to protect each other and the community we serve.

The sheriff’s office has aggressively pursued federal assistance on a number of fronts and has been successful in acquiring grants and commitments that are linked to law enforcement challenges relating to the international border. 

However, most law enforcement and correctional responsibilities remain a local responsibility and must be assigned a high priority if we are to maintain our quality of life here in Whatcom County.