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Sheriff's office outlines plan for reducing Vashon's staffing
If the King County Sheriff’s Office’s proposal for a resident deputy program on Vashon is approved by the deputies’ union, Islanders will see a significant decrease in police presence on Vashon as soon as April 1. The Island will also, however, gain a full-time sergeant to oversee Vashon’s operations and follow crime trends.
Several sheriff’s office officials laid out the proposal at a Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC) meeting last week, making an official announcement of the plan reported by The Beachcomber based on anonymous sources two weeks ago.
Many who attended the meeting expressed concern that the new system — which would rely heavily on on-call officers — would result in longer response times. However, some also said they understood the sheriff’s office is faced with making tough budget cuts.
“I think everyone realizes that money is short right now, and that some of these things are going to take place whether we like it or not,” said Joe Ulatoski, a VashonBePrepared leader who attended the meeting.
Chief Deputy Steve Strachan, second in command at the sheriff’s office, told about 30 Islanders who attended the meeting that the sheriff’s office simply can’t continue to staff Vashon with around 13 deputies. Due to budget cuts, he said, the agency has eliminated 170 positions in the last three years — cuts Vashon hasn’t felt because the office has strived to keep two deputies on the Island at all times.
Looking for what he called an innovative solution, Strachan said the office has proposed that five to six deputies staff the Island. During peak hours one deputy would be on duty and one would be on call, either at home or at the substation, to respond to high-priority crimes and emergencies. During non-peak hours, which would be determined by the department, there would be no deputies on duty and two deputies on call.
Strachan, along with Capt. Patrick Butschli, who oversees the sheriff department’s southwest precinct, and Chief Dave Jutilla who oversees patrol, fielded a number of written questions about the proposal. Sgt. John Hall, Vashon’s administrative sergeant, was also at the meeting.
The officials spoke candidly about the proposal, noting they wouldn’t know the final details until a plan was approved by the deputies’ union.
Butschli said there would likely be longer response times under the program since deputies would sometimes respond from home and may even be awakened for a call.
“In some cases it’s going to be longer than we would all like. In other cases it will be very quick,” he said.
Butschli emphasized, however, that other parts of the county already see long response times due to cuts in staffing. “That’s business as usual on the other side of the water,” he said.
The change would come as the sheriff’s office reworks how it covers unincorporated King County. Beginning in April, the agency’s four precincts will be replaced with zones. Officers, instead of being assigned to cover one precinct, will move between zones as needed, a measure Strachan said would better use their deputy resources.
Along with the change in Vashon’s staffing model, Strachan said the county hopes to bring on a full-time sergeant to work on Vashon and oversee the Island’s operations. Strachan said the individual would be like a police chief for Vashon and would be in charge of scheduling deputies, communicating with the community and following crime trends — a leadership position Vashon doesn’t currently have.
Tim Johnson, president of the community council’s board, said that bringing a full-time sergeant to the Island would be a positive change. Hall, who currently oversees Vashon, is based in Burien and can only give a portion of his time to responding to Islanders’ concerns and attending community meetings.
“I think having someone here 40 hours a week who is in a supervisory position and has the ability to manage deputies is certainly a welcome piece of any plan they have going forward,” Johnson said.
Dave Hoffman, a fire commissioner who attended the meeting, said he thought Islanders should consider forming a volunteer system, an idea brought up during the meeting to make up for the reduction in deputies.
Hoffman said he would sign up for a community volunteer reserve or neighborhood watch program, though it would likely first have to be approved by the deputies’ union.
“I’m grateful for the good work the sheriff’s department does, and I know over town they have a lot of issues they’re dealing with,” Hoffman said. “I want to do what I can to help them out and keep it safe for the community.”
George Brown, Vashon’s assistant fire chief, also attended the meeting and said he was pleased to hear the officials promise there would always be two deputies at least on call on the Island. Sheriff’s deputies often assist Vashon Island Fire & Rescue responders at car accidents, fires and domestic violence incidents. They also provide traffic assistance and security at the scenes of emergencies.
Brown said he was confident the on-call officers would continue to respond to VIFR’s calls for assistance, and since there would still be two deputies available, the new plan shouldn’t affect VIFR’s operations.
“There is a known two people that will always be on the Island, and that’s what caught my ear,” he said. “I though it was a very doable system without having a negative impact on us.”
Brown said he also liked the idea of periodic emphasis patrols for drunk drivers — something officials at the meeting said there may be funds for under a new system.
“I think the element of surprise plays a big role with criminals,” he said.
Officials at the meeting said they were open to feedback on the plan and that someone would return to the March community council meeting to give an update.
“We’re not so settled on it that if a good idea came up or an option to make it better, we’ll consider it,” Strachan said.
Johnson said he didn’t think there would be an effort to prevent the county from moving forward with the plan if approved by the union. But he did hope the agency would stay in close communication with the community council as it implements the new way of policing.
“There’s some room to contribute ideas and maybe get a little more coverage, push around the edges of it,” Johnson said. “My opinion is that a fairly significant reduction in service is coming one way or the other.”