April 29, 2017

Archives for 2013

Guest Editorial to Local Media – October 19, 2013

As Whatcom County seeks citizen input on the proposed 521-inmate jail, it is important to highlight the process used to determine the size of the facility and measures taken to offer alternatives and reduce the growth of future jail needs.

After nearly two years of research, community input and consultation with national experts, the 13-member Council-created Jail Planning Task Force unanimously reported on “critical life-safety” issues requiring that the jail be replaced; concluded that a 500-700 inmate facility operating at 80-85% of its design-capacity was needed; emphasized including space for expanding mental health, educational/ vocational/work programs; highlighted the need to plan for future long-term expansion; and recommended that the County retain a jail planner to refine projections and facilitate recommendations.

The County hired a leading jail planning firm who assessed that Whatcom County needs a jail to accommodate 521 inmates with a long-term expansion capacity to 649 inmates. It further recommended the inclusion of space for all of the educational/mental health programming recommended by the Task Force.
Despite legislation that continually shifts responsibility for housing felons from state prisons to county jails and that mandates arrests and sets minimum sentencing requirements for misdemeanor offenses (primarily domestic violence/ DUI), components of our local law and justice system implemented programs that successfully reduced the growth in our jail population and lowered previous projections on jail capacity needs.

The Prosecutor’s “Fast-Track” program expedited the process of bringing felony cases before the courts and contributed to reducing the average length of pre-trial detentions from 26 to 20 days. Drug court offer eligible offenders the option of treatment rather than incarceration.

District Court Probation has enjoyed phenomenal success with mental health specialists that work with the mentally ill (including veterans suffering PTSD) who otherwise would occupy a disproportionate amount of jail space. Success rates increased from 28% to 75%. One person with schizoaffective disorder and a long history of DUI was booked into jail 53 times. Since entering the program he has been clean, sober and out of jail for 18 months. At the Sheriff’s Office, mental health professionals now work with offenders to diagnose, treat and connect them with community based services upon their release – reducing the likelihood of returning to jail.

The Sheriff’s Office operates the most robust jail-alternative programs in Washington that include the use of electronic home monitoring in lieu of incarceration, the option of avoiding jail time by working on community projects and jail work crews that perform thousands of hours of public service work. Jail work and education programs allow eligible offenders to retain their jobs or continue their education.
Despite successes there many challenges and opportunities remain.

The number of dangerously violent mentally ill offenders held in Jail has dramatically increased as state funding for Western State Hospital has decreased. Resulting backlogs for diagnosis and treatment can now take months. In the interim, the jail is ill-equipped to house, treat or effectively supervise these offenders. The proposed jail will provide 14 rooms to more effectively and safely facilitate these services.
Many minor offenders could be diverted from the criminal justice to the mental health system if a fully functional mental health triage facility were available. While state law provides for diverting persons suspected of committing certain non-violent misdemeanor offenses, it provided no funding. The County has appropriated $3 million for such services and the Health Department continues to explore options for operating the facility.

People should not have to be arrested to access mental health services. Dramatic reductions at state and federal levels have reduced options for community-based treatment. The County has filled some of these voids by funding a variety of programs that include behavioral health services at all seven School Districts; community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment; and services for the chronically homeless and chemically dependent.

Evidence-based research demonstrates that juvenile detention alternative programs can successfully reduce the number of incarcerated juveniles and enjoy enormous success in preventing adult crime. Initiatives at the state level are proposing to restore funding for these programs and I am serving on a committee that is working on a series of recommendations to the Legislature and counties.

The law and judges determine “who” is in Jail. The Sheriff and the County have the responsibility to operate the jail in a safe and constitutional manner. While various programs have achieved success in changing lives, most function on a “carrot-and-stick” model and it is necessary to maintain a facility where those representing risk to the community can be safely held.

Sheriff Bill Elfo
Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office
311 Grand Avenue
Bellingham, WA 98225

(360) 676-6650

Updates regarding the Skagit I-5 Bridge collapse

Please go to http://www.whatcomready.org/blog/ for current updates. Provided by Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management and our partners at Skagit County.

Thank you!

Update from the Sheriff on the Jail Planning Process

March 13, 2013

As Whatcom County prepares to replace the Jail, it is important to update citizens as to the processes followed, decisions made to date and plans to proceed.

In April 2011, the County Council sought recommendations for replacing the Jail. It enacted a Resolution establishing a “Jail Planning Task Force” (JPTF). Council tasked the 13-member JPTF with making recommendations that included the size, location and programming needed
to replace the current Jail. The Resolution provided for JPTF members be appointed by the Executive and confirmed by Council. Citizen and government leaders with expertise in corrections, mental health, rehabilitation, law enforcement, county finance, architecture, construction, business, labor and experience in environmental, land use and neighborhood issues served on the JPTF.

The JPTF held 16 public meetings, solicited community input and received comments from citizens and stakeholders from throughout the criminal justice and behavioral health systems. It received professional assistance from the National Institute of Corrections and other experts. A very transparent process was followed. All agendas, minutes and reports were published on the County’s website. Media were invited to attend all meetings.

The JPTF presented its unanimous conclusions to the Council in a public Council meeting last April, reporting: “due to overcrowding, life/safety and physical plant concerns in the main jail facility, Whatcom County needs a new jail.” It described the need as “critical.”

The JPTF reported that “while it was beyond its expertise to determine the precise capacity needed for a new jail, it concluded that the jail should operate at 80-85% of its design capacity and have capacity for 500-700 inmates.” The JPTF recommended that the County retain an experienced jail planner to conduct a needs assessment and refine inmate capacity projections. The current jail system holds up to 470 inmates and offers little flexibility to adjust housing to meet fluctuating security and special housing needs.

The JPTF recommended that the jail be sited reasonably close to both I-5 and the Courthouse and be especially able to accommodate future expansion; designed to maximize operational efficiencies; and expand existing jail work programs.

Executive Louws consulted with the Council and me before implementing recommendations. Proposals were solicited from nationally-recognized jail planning firms. DLR-Group, a leader in modern jail planning and design, was selected. Council accepted DLR’s proposal and unanimously approved a contract to assess jail housing needs; recommend system changes to reduce future jail needs; and estimate costs. This work is proceeding consistent with national standards and best practices.

The Executive also convened a group of professionals and citizens with expertise in public facilities, land use, corrections and law enforcement. He tasked this group with establishing site selection criteria. Criteria were established and proposals were solicited. Eleven proposals were received, reviewed and evaluated. All proposals and evaluations were published on the County website and released to the media.

A 40-acre industrially-zoned and fully serviced site near I-5 in Ferndale was identified as most consistent with the selection criteria. DLR and other professionals are now conducting a preliminary assessment of the site to determine its viability. Prior to recommending Council authorize purchasing any site, there will be a comprehensive review of environmental impacts and opportunities for public comment.

Jail needs are influenced by population growth but are more heavily affected by factors such as decisions of the Legislature transferring incarceration responsibilities from state prisons to county jails; laws mandating arrests and minimum jail sentences; and large-scale resource reductions at the state and federal levels that dramatically limit evaluation and treatment options for mentally ill offenders.

Replacing the jail is a major undertaking that cannot be avoided. Life-safety issues, human conditions, potential taxpayer liability and extraordinary repair costs dictate this process move forward. If the Ferndale site is ultimately selected, neighborhood safety, aesthetic and traffic concerns must be responsibly addressed.

Decisions regarding the location, size and financing for the replacement Jail ultimately rest with the County Council. As your Sheriff, I will continue to recommend a facility that is “right-sized” for our community’s needs; designed for cost-efficient operations; and located at a site flexible enough to meet future requirements. I also will continue to advocate for improvements in our justice and mental health systems that can humanely and effectively reduce future jail needs.

Bill Elfo,
Whatcom County Sheriff

Sheriff’s Office partners with the U.S. Marshal to more effectively address serious crime problems

From the Blaine Northern Light:
Whatcom County Sheriff partners with U.S. Marshals
Published on Wed, Mar 6, 2013 by Brandy Kiger

Drug deals, violence and murder.

These are things that you expect to hear about in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles or Chicago. It’s not something that readily comes to mind when you consider Whatcom County, which has about 203,000 residents living in mostly rural areas.

But Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo says over the last five years he’s seen gang members leave their native pavements and find root in Whatcom soil.

“There are more than 700 confirmed gang members or associates here,” he said. “They represent anywhere from 34 to 37 gangs at any given time. We’ve always had gang wannabes and gang-type activity here, but we didn’t see these national ties to established gangs until about five years ago.”

He said that the proximity to the border, vast stretches such as the Mt. Baker wilderness area and high through traffic make the location ideal. “We’ve seen people from virtually every state pass through our system,” he said. “The gangs take members who are wanted in other states and stash them here until things cool off.”

Elfo pointed out that the sheriff’s department has 84 deputies to cover an area larger than the state of Delaware. “It encompasses 2,150 square miles. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and you have wilderness areas like Baker Lake that we are responsible for. We are spread out far and wide,” he said. “It’s not just a Bellingham problem,” he said. “It may have been that way at one point, but it’s evenly distributed now. There’s been a huge problem in Birch Bay and Everson. It’s county-wide.”

It’s tough to get a grip on the growing problem, so Elfo and his team reached out for help. They’ve been partnering with the Drug Enforcement Agency for the past two years, and recently connected with the U.S. Marshal’s office when five Whatcom County sheriff’s deputies were deputized as U.S. Marshals.

“We don’t have the resources to do it alone,” he said. “Most agencies don’t. We’re trying to develop as many partnerships as we can. We’ve been working with the marshals informally, but they suggested we take it to the next level.” The partnerships give the sheriff’s office access to advanced tracking equipment, better intelligence gathering and information sharing and, perhaps most importantly, extra bodies.

Together, they’ve developed the Northwest Regional Gang and Drug Task Force to tackle the problem head-on. Local law enforcement agencies and Homeland Security join in the hunt and hold monthly or bimonthly roundups of gang members with outstanding warrants and bring them in for questioning.

“We’re really interested in dismantling these criminal enterprises,” Elfo said. “It’s a three-pronged attack: intelligence gathering, long-term investigations and street enforcements. So far it’s been pretty successful. It sends a message that if you are a gang member in Whatcom County, you won’t be ignored and that we’re looking for you,” Elfo said.

They’ve also made sure an officer is assigned to the prosecutor’s office to ensure that the prosecutor has everything they need before trial to build the best case possible and that witnesses, often the lynch pin for trials, are not intimidated by gang members in the process. “A lot of times the prosecutor has to plead or drop the case because the witnesses don’t show up. Our officer makes sure they are taken care of and there isn’t any intimidation before the trial. Because of that, we’re able to get more convictions,” Elfo said.

They are also able to work with the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle to procure stiffer penalties thanks to the now established partnerships with federal agencies. “We can put habitual offenders away for longer,” Elfo said.

Though he has seen progress since they’ve implemented the task force, Elfo isn’t ready to declare victory yet. “Seven percent of the people we put away are responsible for the 80 to 90 percent of the crime we see,” he said. “We’re just whittling away at them.”

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Sheriff Elfo’s Guest Opinion: Guns, Mass Killings and Mental Health – Bellingham Herald Feb 22 2013

Our nation and community have focused on recent mass murders and the need for effective prevention and response strategies. Meaningful steps to reduce mass killings requires improving measures to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the dangerously mentally ill; plugging gaps in our mental health system that result in repeat instances of violence by those with serious mental health issues; and an effective law enforcement and first-responder approach to instances of “active-shooters.”Although brave citizens are often the first to risk or sacrifice their lives to stop mass killings, instances of “active-shooters” require an immediate law enforcement response. In recent years, the sheriff’s office and many local police departments trained and equipped officers to do just that. Although imprudent to reveal specific tactics, the sheriff’s office response protocols are constructed around nationally recognized best practices and involve the ability of every deputy to immediately respond to “active-shooters.” Highly-trained special response and crisis negotiation teams are trained to support this immediate response.As school children have frequently been victims of mass killings, the sheriff’s office has dedicated resources to increase the presence of deputies in and around school campuses and have worked with nearby police departments to do the same. The sheriff’s office has also coordinated both tabletop and live exercises with fire and school officials that are designed to test capabilities and better prepare first-responders to respond to instances of active-shooters. Law enforcement encounters violent and dangerously mentally ill people every day. Unfortunately, limited resources in the mental health system result in many of the mentally ill either being released or winding up in the county jail.The sheriff’s office on average houses 50-65 violent mentally ill offenders a day in jail. While best efforts are made to provide diagnosis and treatment, resource limitations and legal constraints frequently do not result in effective stabilization.State funding cuts have limited the sheriff’s office ability to move the violently mentally ill to Western State Hospital. The mental health system assigns a low priority on involuntarily committing those already housed in the county jail. The result is many dangerously mentally ill people are released back into the community without effective treatment and soon commit new acts of violence.The case of former Bellingham resident Isaac Zamora is illustrative of gaps that exist in the criminal justice and mental health systems. Despite a long history of criminal violence and mental illness, Zamora was not in custody when he acquired a firearm and randomly shot and killed six people, including a deputy sheriff, just feet south of the county line.Federal firearms laws strictly prohibit dangerous criminals and those adjudicated mentally ill from acquiring or possessing firearms. While the law provides stiff penalties for doing so, thousands of criminals falsify federal firearms purchase forms every year. Very few are federally prosecuted.Last year a Bellingham felon with a history of rendering death threats lied about his crimes to acquire a firearm and ammunition. Despite renewed threats, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute him in part because of his “mental illness.” The recently announced heightened priority federal prosecutors will give these crimes is welcomed news. Last week the FBI adopted a sheriff’s office case of a convicted violent felon with obvious mental health issues who possessed firearms and ammunition.While solutions may seem obvious, the reality is that we are living in times where law enforcement, prosecutors as well as the corrections and mental health systems have faced huge budget reductions that limit the ability to effectively implement more effective strategies. If we are serious about preventing mass murder, it is time to re-think priorities towards effective public safety.Bill Elfo is the Whatcom County Sheriff.

Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2013/02/22/2886240/deputies-trained-for-active-shooters.html#storylink=cpy

WCSO Assists with School Safety and Preparedness In Lynden

For Immediate Public Release: February 21 2013

(Lynden, WA)

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management lead a three hour table top exercise for teachers, fire, and police from the city of Lynden today. Table top simulation involves working through a scripted series of events, in a classroom environment, to discuss responses and actions that would be taken in response to an incident. The exercise was hosted at the Lynden Police Department and involved Lynden educators and first responders only.

The purpose of the exercise was to practice the schools all-hazard emergency plan and coordinate how it would work with the local first responders from the fire and police departments.

Whatcom Sheriff’s Office Deputy Director of Emergency Managment Kent Catlin had this to say:
“This level of cooperation between the school district, fire, and police departments is paramount. The community should take pride in the fact these organizations and agencies are willing to work together; you do not find this type of city/ school district cooperation everywhere in Washington State. Local solutions to local problems is always the quickest way mitigate a disaster”.

The exercise was the result of a six month planning effort and will help to lay the ground work for a safer community, and schools in the city of Lynden. The exercise incorporated educators and first responders sitting in a forum and discussing what protocols would be involved in their response.

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Sheriff works to keep serial rapist who received life sentence behind bars

Sheriff Bill Elfo was recently notified that the Washington State Intermediate Sentencing Review Board granted parole to Donald Randolph Hooper (date of birth 8-1-1957) and that the State Department of Corrections (DOC) had planned to relocate him to a residence in the 5100 block of the Guide Meridian north of Bellingham. Hooper was serving a Life Sentence in the State Prison at Monroe for the 1st Degree Rape and Attempted First Degree Murder of a child.

Sheriff Elfo’s review of the DOC file revealed that in December of 1982, Hooper abducted a 14 year old girl at gunpoint from her bus stop in Seattle. After threatening to kill her, her forced her into the trunk of his vehicle where he gagged her, bound her with flex-ties and menaced her with a knife, cut off her clothing and fondled her breasts and buttocks.

Hooper, a State Ferry System worker at the time of the incident, locked the girl in the trunk of the vehicle and drove on to a ferry bound for Kitsap County. Hooper drove to a secluded area where he raped the child. He then tightened the flex-ties that bound her and threw her into the Hood Canal where he left her for dead. Fortunately, the 14 year old child was able to remain afloat, make her way to shore and seek help. Hooper and the child were strangers to each other at the time of the crime. The investigation revealed that the flex-ties and gag used by Hooper to control his victim were stolen from the Ferry System.

Hooper was also convicted in 1986 of Rape in the 1st Degree following another incident in which he admitted to picking up a female hitchhiker, binding her with flex-ties and raping her at gunpoint. Although Hooper admitted to this offense, his conviction was reversed on appeal due to the use of a post-hypnotic identification procedure. Hooper also admitted to other sex crimes against women that were not prosecuted.

A 2010 pre-release evaluation concluded that Hooper presented a “moderate-risk for violent and sexual recidivism if released into the community” and that the “possibility of very serious psychological and/or physical harm, if not lethality, would be considerable.” Previous evaluations characterized his crime as “a calculated, callous and cold-blooded offense that reflects a total disregard for human life.” The Department of Corrections noted that Hooper obtained two associate degrees while serving in prison. Records also note disciplinary infractions were incurred while in prison for refusing to perform work. The Department of Corrections rated Hooper as Risk Level III Sex Offender, meaning that he has a “high risk to re- offend.” The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office concurred that Hooper has a “high risk to re-offend” and that he presents a grave danger to our community. Other information from the Department of Corrections indicates that Hooper will be supervised on parole for at least three years.

According to Indeterminate Sentencing Review Board’ staff, the decision to grant parole to Hooper was discretionary and not mandatory. The Governor has the ability to reverse the Board’s decision.

Sheriff Elfo said: “Hooper should not be turned lose to re-offend in Whatcom County or for that matter, any other community. He is physically capable of victimizing more women and children. The State even admits that he is likely to re-offend. We do not want to raise the possibility that we will have to inform a parent that Hooper has harmed their child without first doing all we can to reverse a decision that we feel is contrary to the safety of our citizens.”

Sheriff Elfo went on to say: “I appreciate the efforts of the other officials I contacted for assistance in stopping Hooper’s release that included staff from the Governor’s Office, our state delegation from the 42nd Legislative District where Hooper was to be housed and the Prosecuting Attorneys from both Whatcom and Kitsap counties. As a result of these efforts, officials were persuaded to reconsider Hooper’s parole.”

Sheriff Elfo was contacted by Washington State Secretary of Corrections late Tuesday afternoon and was informed that the decision to release Hooper would be delayed and that the Indeterminate Sentencing Board would be asked to review its decision.