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Vashon’s police coverage to decline this spring

Vashon will see a reduced police presence — including the possible loss of nighttime patrols — as soon as April as part of a cost-saving overhaul at the King County Sheriff’s Office.

Due to county budget cuts, the sheriff’s office has eliminated about 140 deputy positions over the last three years. It is now reworking the department to cover the county with fewer officers and avoid layoffs, said Capt. Patrick Butschli, who oversees the sheriff’s office’s southwest precinct. He said the plan will include reducing staffing on Vashon, which has so far been immune from the county’s cuts.

“There has to be a service reduction in some fashion on Vashon. That’s just the ugly truth,” Butschli said. “There is no way to keep things the same and do it with less money. There is no way.”

It currently takes about 13 deputies to staff Vashon, with two deputies on duty at all times.

Two king county sheriff’s deputies who wished to not be named, however, said they were told the sheriff’s office plans to implement a residential deputy program that would involve a significant reduction in Vashon’s service.

Under the plan, they say, Vashon would be staffed by five deputies who all lived on the Island. During daytime hours, one deputy would be on duty and one would be on call at home. During evening and nighttime hours, there would be no deputies on duty and two on call at home. On-call deputies would respond only to high-priority crimes and emergencies.

The two deputies both expressed concern about the plan for Vashon. Under the plan, they said, the deputy on call during the day would have less access to backup. During the night there would be no patrolling and only high-priority calls would see a response.

“People are going to know there aren’t cops around here,” one deputy said. “Myself, I think it’s a real hazard.”

Butschli, asked about the plan, confirmed that the sheriff’s office was considering the resident deputy program on Vashon as one of several options but said no decision has been made. He said the resident deputy approach has been used in other rural parts of the state such as the San Juan Islands.

“We are still working though several proposals on how we might draw down resources on the Island without greatly impacting public safety or the safety of deputies,” he said.

Butschli declined to say what other options the agency was considering.

However, the two deputies, interviewed separately by The Beachcomber, said that when they were presented with the residential deputy program during recent meetings, it seemed like a final decision for Vashon and not one of several options. Both deputies did say such a change would have to first be approved by their union.

“They basically told (us) this is how it’s going to go,” one deputy said.

The other deputy said he had the same impression. “I’m pretty much positive they’re going to ram this through,” he said.

Butschli said that deputies have been consulted as part of the agency’s brainstorming process, but that no decision has been made and that no one has been given instruction about what will happen.

“If somebody has told you we have a plan in mind laid out, it’s absolutely going to happen, it’s false. It’s not true,” Butschli said.

He added that any plan the sheriff’s office proposes will have to be approved by the King County Police Officer’s Guild, the King County Sheriff and the King County Council before implementation.

“There are a lot of steps that have to take place before this is done, and those haven’t taken place yet,” he said.

Several community leaders on Vashon expressed surprise that the sheriff’s office plans to reduce police presence on Vashon and were concerned about what the plan may mean for crime on the Island.

Tim Johnson, president of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council, said he has heard rumors that police service on Vashon is going to change and he’s worried.

Johnson said crime rates, particularly drug use and property crime, have been hot topics of discussion at community council meetings in recent months. The council is even working to revive its public safety committee, he said, and an Islander who would like the committee to address drug use is getting involved.

“I think from the community council’s perspective, we’ve noticed a growing concern among the local populace, even with the levels of (police) service we’ve had,” Johnson said. “We’ve noticed drugs and drug-related activity has moved more to the front burner.”

He said any reduction in Vashon’s coverage won’t sit well with the community.

“I think it’s going to be an unhappy occasion. … This is something we need to get out and in front of and address with the county officially,” he said.

Hank Lipe, Vashon’s fire chief, said he too had concerns about the idea of reduced police coverage on the Island.

Lipe said Vashon Island Fire & Rescue works closely with the sheriff’s office, as deputies often respond alongside VIFR to car accidents, fires and domestic violence incidents. They also provide traffic assistance and security at the scenes of emergencies.

Lipe said it’s impossible to know whether police reductions would affect VIFR until there is an official plan.

“I’ll monitor it closely, and if I see it impacts the safety of our operation, I’ll communicate that message,” he said. “It’s certainly at risk of impacting us.”

Luke McQuillin, who heads the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA), said reduced police presence would not only deter crime prevention on Vashon, but would impede the alliance’s efforts.

VARSA, he said, is currently working to increase visibility at popular spots for drinking, drug use and drug deals. It is also planning to ask the sheriff’s office to increase patrolling outside businesses known to sell alcohol to minors. Both of those approaches, he said, would be inhibited if there were less patrolling on the Island.

“That would have a negative impact. I can tell you that right off the bat,” he said.

Butschli said he knows Vashon residents will be concerned about reduced coverage, but said that the county simply can’t continue to give Vashon the same resources.

Sgt. Cindi West said the sheriff’s office has lost $20 million in funding since 2008 due to annexations and county budget cuts. The effects have been felt across the agency, she said: Many units, such as the domestic violence, major crimes and homicide and drug investigation units have seen staff reductions.

Butschli said Vashon’s service has remained the same while other parts of unincorporated King County have seen significant cuts in part because the office strives to always have two deputies available on the Island.

“Vashon has been largely immune from these impacts primarily because it’s tricky, it’s an island where backup is a ferry ticket and a … boat ride away,” he said.

Vashon now requires about 10 percent of unincorporated King County’s deputy resources, he said, while less than 2 percent of the department’s total calls come from the Island.

“We have to make reductions. If we don’t, we’re going to lose more personnel. To make things balanced, something has to happen,” he said.

 

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