Realities of policing Vashon, a place with “a state of mind”

King County Sheriff’s Deputy Seth Moore recently brought a Beachcomber reporter along while on duty, a day that included monitoring drivers as they left the north-end ferry terminal, making a stop to cross Island Center Forest on foot and later responding to an active domestic violence incident.

For Moore, now in his third year as a deputy, navigating the island can be an exercise in discovery.

“There’s been a couple of times I had to get to calls quickly, and I had to drive around and figure out where I am,” he said, peering out his window between the small hangers lining the grassy tarmac of the Vashon Municipal Airport before completing his patrol there. “So I like to explore the island. It’s really beautiful.”

Because Vashon is a rural community, Moore said that law enforcement typically expect fewer calls compared to activity in the surrounding region. It’s why deputies like him typically won’t bring new recruits to Vashon for training; the experience needed for them to become competent officers is better found elsewhere. Busy radio chatter from the nearby communities of Burien, Seatac and Skyway seems a world away. Yet even for the island’s reputed gentler pace of life, officers working on Vashon must be ready at a moment’s notice, whether it be for simply ticketing a parking violation or for when the call is more urgent.

“Multitasking isn’t doing a bunch of things at once. It’s doing one thing at a time and knowing when to put something down and pick something up,” said Moore, his attention divided between the conversation and the last word from dispatch.

He expressed relief upon learning from the radio that authorities had managed to peacefully end a standoff with King County Deputy Berdon Parsons, who was taken into custody in Seattle after 13 hours barricaded in his apartment over allegations of domestic violence.

“That’s one of my colleagues,” said Moore, thankful for the outcome. “There’s still life after arrest.”

Moore said that he was approached by a Beachcomber reader after the paper published a May 23 letter to the editor from islander Kate Hunter, who wrote that she felt deputies are too often in their cars, and not out in the community. He estimated that 18 to 25 of the same King County deputies are tasked with routinely patrolling Vashon, with a minimum of two on the island at any given time.

“You kind of do have the same people working here consistently,” said Moore. “For the most part, people seem happy to see us here. I will say that people seem to have the sentiment that we’re not islanders, and it’s true, the majority of us are not.”

Moore said that he continues to push for dialogue with residents in an effort to close any perceived gaps or misunderstanding.

“Someone will say, ‘Oh, you’re new to the island.’ Well, what does that mean?” said Moore. “I don’t think it’s ever meant as a sign of disrespect — I have heard it as a sign of disrespect — but more so, I think it’s a state of mind.”

Moore believes an inclination to uphold the expectations of the communities he serves allows him to perform his job effectively.

“You have to know your public,” he said, “and the only way to do that is to talk to them and get to know them.”

The most recurrent emergencies on Vashon that Moore responds to are traffic accidents.

“I would say a significant amount of them are alcohol related,” he added.

The island’s sharp curves along steep, narrow and winding roads have brought tragedy to some motorists. Reports of poaching, namely for squid, arise on occasion. Neighbor complaints, public intoxication, people in distress and burglaries are also common.

On a narrow passage overlooking the waterfront, a motorist pulled alongside Moore’s cruiser, claiming that he had witnessed a speeding, erratic driver weave through traffic. Relaying the license plate number, the motorist said there were children in the back seat of the vehicle and suspected the driver was under the influence.

Moore said it was important not to discount the possibility of a medical emergency occurring behind the wheel, which could explain the alleged behavior of the driver.

“Probably, she’s going to have some complaint about him, the guy who reported about the incident, something like, “Well, yeah, that’s why I was trying to get around him,’” he said. Moore documents statements from the public verbatim because he said the community has set that expectation, even in cases when other officers would consider word-for-word transcription a waste of time.

Behind the Mukai Commons apartment complex, Moore exited his cruiser and approached a suspicious vehicle parked on the edge of Island Center Forest. As he spoke with the driver, King County Deputy Glen Brannon arrived to assist. He recognized the vehicle, noting that the windshield wipers were raised — peculiar for a beautiful day — prompting his skepticism of the driver’s intentions, who he believed may have been trying to initiate a drug deal. Someone reported that the driver had participated in what appeared to be a transaction earlier. Deputy Moore then returned to his vehicle.

“When I talked to him, he basically said, ‘I’m parked out here watching the crow,’” Moore said of the conversation. “What are the odds that he’s maybe an amateur bird watcher? He said he used to live on Vashon but he doesn’t now.”

Moore ran the driver’s ID in the system, but it returned nothing. “He came back clear, he didn’t have warrants; it doesn’t say he’s a horrible person, so that’s what that stop was — somewhat of an investigative stop.”

The motorist soon left the scene.

Parking their cruisers, Moore and Brannon next decided to survey the homeless encampments of Island Center Forest, saying doing so would provide helpful insight should there ever be a medical need or for possible leads during an investigation of criminal activity.

“It’s amazing how much more you see walking around,” said Brannon, who noted that slowing down to patrol on foot is almost impossible in places such as White Center due to the risk of neglecting other calls.

Brannon scouted ahead to search for footpaths into the brush. When he found one, he stepped several feet toward a clearing and announced that a deputy was present.

Brannon and Moore inspected the vacant camp, finding a collapsed tent, a sleeping bag, blankets, magazines, a potted flower and other assorted belongings, concluding that whoever was staying there would return.

All Home, the organization leading an annual January count of homeless persons in Seattle and King County, reported on May 31 that the number of people experiencing homelessness increased 4 percent overall since last year, with 6,320 people on the streets, in vehicles or staying in tents or encampments.

“Out here on the island, the homeless population is about 60,” said Brannon.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean out in the woods either,” added Moore.

Brannon agreed. “Lots of people live in their cars,” he said. “Usually you can tie their homelessness to drugs or instability.”

In all, the deputies toured three camps, discovering much of the same. No evidence of drug paraphernalia was found during their search.

With another ferry due to arrive, Moore headed back to the north end of the island to observe traffic, pulling over a large truck with an unsecured load in the bed before receiving a call about a domestic violence incident unfolding at the Eernisse Apartments.

Upon arriving at the scene, deputies Moore and Brannon found a 28-year-old man outside the home with a foot injury sustained after a fall from a window. He claimed that he and his 39-year-old girlfriend, who was no longer on the premises, began fighting after he arrived home from work. According to the police report, the woman’s teenage daughter saw him body slam her mother against a wall before leaving through the window because she was grabbing at him. The man was taken into custody on an outstanding warrant as well as for assault in the 4th degree.

The woman was soon located and taken into custody for an assault on a child who lives in the complex. The boy was riding on a scooter outside the home when she approached and hit him, leaving marks on his arm.

To Moore, being a sheriff’s deputy is equal parts demanding and fulfilling.

“I like working for the sheriff’s department, and I enjoy the challenges it affords me in this profession as well as personally,” he said, sharing that the badge has made him think about the concept of being a neighbor. “I don’t think that I just work on Vashon Island and I only live in Tacoma — I would consider my community whoever I come into contact with.”