A ride-along offers a peek into crime on Vashon

Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Brown tests marijuana he confiscated from a vehicle on Friday night. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Brown tests marijuana he confiscated from a vehicle on Friday night.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

When King County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Brown approaches a vehicle on Vashon, even on a routine traffic stop, he always draws his gun and holds it low and out of sight. And when he drives into a parking lot, he removes his seatbelt, ready to jump out of his vehicle at a moment’s notice.

These measures were learned during his years of service in White Center and, Brown admits, and are largely unnecessary in a place like Vashon. Despite a recent surge in burglaries and growing concern over crime on the Island, Brown believes Vashon is every bit as sleepy as it was when he first came here half a dozen years ago.

A Beachcomber reporter recently accompanied Brown on a Friday evening shift to see just what a weekend night held for law enforcement on Vashon. The answer? Not a whole lot.

On a typical shift, Brown spends most of his time patrolling. On this particular night, Nov. 12, the streets seemed to be empty even at 6 p.m. as he pulled out of the sub-station at Courthouse Square.

He had plenty of time to discuss his time on Vashon as he patrolled the streets and checked on the Island’s parks and recently reported problem areas.

Brown’s shaved head and muscly physique give the 32-year-old the appearance of a hardened city cop, but just a few minutes with the former volunteer firefighter from Shoreline reveal his lighthearted demeanor. While Brown enjoyed the fast pace of working nights in White Center — where gangs are rampant and shootings are commonplace — he said after six years there he needed a break.

“In White Center you draw your gun several times a day. … I’ve gone to houses where the guy was freshly killed. … That takes a toll on you,” he said.

Brown requested to be transferred to Vashon full time in September. He’s no newcomer to the Island, though. Brown has worked at least one week a month on Vashon for the last six years, sometimes spending months at a time on the Island.

“I like the sense of community here,” he said. “Everybody is pretty cordial to each other and to us.”

Brown’s move to Vashon came after the Island began to have more full-time deputies, rather than rotating several through, a system Brown said is more effective because the deputies can more easily get to know the community.

“I’m a big proponent of community-oriented policing. … Building that rapport is monumental,” he said.

Brown’s first traffic stop of the night, at around 7 p.m., was a small SUV with a broken headlight. The driver of the vehicle bearing a “VSHHOLE” bumper sticker was cooperative, unlike his small dog, who kept jumping out of the car window and into the street.

After running the man’s license and saying hello to an off-duty officer who happened to drive by, Brown sent the driver on his way with a warning and a smile.

At any given time, Brown said, there are two deputies on duty on Vashon. During a typical shift, they will get one or two calls between them.

Brown’s only call of the night came at around 8 p.m., when a security alarm was set off at the Vashon Cemetery.

Soon he was pulling into the cemetery behind Lisa Devereau, director of Island Funeral Service, who had also received a call from the security company. As they casually walked towards the utilities building where the alarm was tripped, neither one of them seemed to expect to find a burglary in progress. Indeed, Brown and Devereau quickly determined that the vibrating generator or a rodent must have set off the alarm.

“There was no sign of entry anywhere,” Brown said as he pulled away

Though the night’s only call was literally a false alarm, Brown said he has seen more burglaries on Vashon in recent months, particularly over the summer.

“Burglaries shot way down when we started putting the squeeze on a couple people we suspected,” he said.

According to King County records, as of Oct. 31 there had been 45 residential burglaries and attempted residential burglaries on Vashon, more than twice as many as there had been by that time last year.

Theft has also risen this year, with 76 non-vehicle thefts by Oct. 31 this year, compared with 36 during the same time last year.

Brown knows that the in-crease in burglaries has raised concerns on the Island. He attended a recent community forum where he heard some Islanders refer to growing crime rates on Vashon.

He believes, however, some Islanders are unnecessarily concerned for their safety.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as a lot of people think it is,” he said. “More crime? Yes. More danger? No.”

Besides the fact that burglaries are slowing down again, he said, no other crimes seem to be on the rise and Vashon is still a safe place. “To me, it’s just as quiet as always,” he said.

The evening, however, would not end quietly for Brown.

Around 9 p.m., as his shift neared its end, a routine traffic stop turned into a drug bust. When Brown pulled over a young woman in a large pickup truck for a broken headlight, he immediately smelled marijuana in the car and casually questioned her about it.

Though the woman denied she had been smoking, blaming a friend who was recently in the car, Brown said her watery, bloodshot eyes gave her away. “I could tell she was lying, she was skating around the truth,” he said.

A search of the vehicle turned up a sandwich bag full of pot, and a quick test of the leafy drug gave Brown the evidence he needed to arrest the woman.

As she sat handcuffed on her truck’s tailgate, crying on and off, Brown calmly tested the marijuana with a kit he keeps in the trunk.

“This is pretty low-grade stuff. I hope you didn’t pay too much for it,” he joked, holding the drugs up to a spotlight on his car.

Though he could have booked the woman, Brown let her call her parents for a ride, knowing she would appear in court in a couple months to face misdemeanor charges.

Even an arrest for marijuana, Brown said, was not an uncommon occurrence as he ended what he called a typical night on Vashon.

And while Brown said it would be easy for Vashon deputies to slip into routine and let down their guards, he knows he’ll continue drawing his gun at traffic stops, removing his seatbelt in parking lots and preparing for the kind of crime he’s seen only in White Center.

“You can’t count on it always being sleepy,” he said. “I’ve always got to be prepared. … Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”

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