April 29, 2017

Archives for March 2013

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