March 31, 2015

Whatcom County plans funding and construction of new jail

Civic Agenda: Whatcom County plans funding and construction of new jail
By Jack Louws
Courtesy to The Bellingham HeraldJanuary 11, 2015


This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or

During its 160-year history Whatcom County has been charged by state law with the operation and maintenance of the county jail and related correctional facilities. It’s widely recognized that the existing jail requires additional capacity and improved infrastructure in order to safely incarcerate the combined volume of inmates charged by the cities as well as county inmates. Since becoming county executive, a key priority of my administration has been to work closely with our sheriff, council and city leaders on finding the best solution to these capacity and infrastructure problems. Thanks to the commitment of many agencies, organizations and stakeholders, Whatcom County is actively planning the construction of a new jail along with an adjacent facility to house all Sheriff’s Office operations.

The county intends to build and operate a new jail consisting of approximately 520 beds to service the needs of all jurisdictions in the community for the foreseeable future. The facility will contain desperately needed space to better house and treat inmates with mental illness who may endanger themselves or others as well as provide programming designed to reduce recidivism. Through the hard work and collaboration with the cities and many agencies, construction is anticipated to begin in February 2017. To accomplish this, several project steps are already underway to locate the new county jail on Labounty Road in the south part of the city of Ferndale:

Prior to any building Whatcom County will be applying to the city of Ferndale for a conditional use permit. The process leading to a permit will confirm the intended visual and infrastructure requirements on the site to meet the design and other important expectations of the city. Whatcom County’s lead architect, the DLR Group, has been helping facilitate the permitting process.

With the support of the sheriff and other agencies working as a team the DLR Group has been reviewing the building site to determine overall opportunities and concerns on the Labounty Road site.

The site has many natural features, including a gradual elevation grade change and some wetlands. The grade change of the site will be incorporated into the design of the jail facilities to limit the visual impact to the surrounding neighbors and residences on Labounty Road. The new jail plans include avoiding and minimizing the impacts on wetlands as well as enhancing the on-site wetlands with the goal of providing an enriched habitat and connection to the surrounding plants and lands.

These wetland mitigation and enhancement efforts will be reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Ecology. A key role these agencies perform is to ensure the project is taking advantage of the on-site opportunities to avoid and enhance the existing habitat effectively. These state and federal agencies will be reviewing the project plans and permits through the summer of 2015.

Our local climate conditions are also carefully reviewed so as to determine the building forms that respond best to environmental impacts, such as the strong northeastern wind. In this case a combination of trees and shrubs will provide the necessary wind buffer as well as an effective screening of the facilities throughout the building site. The project permits are being submitted to the city of Ferndale by the end of January in concordance with their application process. The total project design will be reviewed by the city of Ferndale to ensure the project can met the requirements set by the city with permit approval anticipated in March 2015.

Many elements must be considered when planning for and constructing a new jail, most important, of course, is the security of the community, our jail staff and the inmates. While the construction has critical infrastructure elements to consider there are also design choices that help to make positive and corrective impacts on the inmates. The same design elements that have been used successfully at other buildings around the country can be used to improve the work environment for our corrections deputies and other staff who spend thousands of hours inside the building. It’s important to design a facility that improves the environmental conditions for all who enter the building. We all recognize that daylight offers health, mental and physiological benefits. These natural elements can have physiological and calming benefits and acoustic controls can reduce tension. These types of design elements improve the work environment for the correctional deputies and help with inmate management, which is mutually beneficial. Efforts to create sustainable, safe, light-filled, and warm work environments for our corrections officers better equips them to do their best work.

To support the exterior of the building the design layouts reflects separate public and secure staff entrances. The public entrance is situated to the south and scaled to proper proportions, whereas, the staff entrance is scaled to fit the neighboring residential zone to the northeast. The design process will continue after Whatcom County is granted the conditional use permit and by the end of 2015 we will finalize the interior building layout. The design of the jail will progress through detailed studies of design decisions and the documentation phase. We intend to provide a full construction package for bidding by mid-2016 with construction anticipated to begin in February 2017.

Meanwhile, the county is working collaboratively with the city of Bellingham and small cities to develop a long term inter-local agreement that will guide the funding of the construction, operations and services from all the cities and jurisdictions that are using the jail facility. The inter-local agreement confirms the cities and other jurisdictions desire to continue use of the jail for the detention of their inmates. These governments and agencies have agreed that the community and its taxpayers are best served by a cooperative, collective approach to public infrastructure, including the new jail, through joint planning and financing. I’m pleased that these efforts help to promote economies of scale and maximize the efficiencies of your local governments.

A capitol project of this size will take a voter-approved tax measure this fall to make this project a reality within the timelines identified. As Whatcom County and the cities, with the technical support of The DLR Group and bonding consultant, Public Financing Management, refine the costs and funding strategies for this facility, I will continue to be updating you with our progress in the coming months. Please contact me or Sheriff Elfo for further information or clarification if needed.

Read more here:

The Use Of Surplus Military Equipment by WCSO

By Sheriff Bill Elfo
Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald September 8, 2014

Recent events have raised questions about federal government programs that provide surplus military equipment to law enforcement. Fundamental to ordered liberty in the United States is the principle that local law enforcement is not a force of military occupation, but rather are part of the community and accountable to locally elected officials and the citizenry. Law enforcement officers do not function as soldiers, but rather as guardians of the community. Our citizens rightfully expect that officers be respectful of constitutional rights but remain highly trained, well-equipped and prepared to responsibly and effectively protect them.

I cannot speak to the type of surplus military equipment acquired in other states or how it is deployed. I can specifically address the nature of equipment that has been acquired by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office and the circumstances and manner in which it is used.

The sheriff’s office received surplus anti-ballistic type body armor and vehicles. This equipment is designed to maximize the level of protection afforded officers, victims and innocent bystanders from those seeking to use weapons against them. The vehicles are “armored,” but are not “armed.” This means that they provide a high-level of ballistic protection from weapons but are not “weaponized” or in any way used as weapons.

Law enforcement is increasingly confronted with armed, dangerous and often mentally ill and irrational persons and must plan for responses to terrorist acts. Anti-ballistic equipment and vehicles maximize the safety of officers as they respond to these high-risk situations. The vehicles and equipment also provide a platform from which officers can more safely evacuate citizens from zones of danger.

Dramatic news footage of school shootings, the Jewish Community Center shooting in Seattle and other incidents involving active shooters highlight risks to innocent bystanders and victims who suddenly find themselves in the midst of a violent attack. It makes no sense to evacuate citizens by running them unprotected through a potential field of fire when safe and effective alternatives are available. These specialty vehicles are also designed to traverse floods, mud and other challenging terrains and can facilitate search and rescue missions.

Armored vehicles are not used for routine patrol. The sheriff’s office maintains highly refined risk-assessment and deployment protocols for the deployment of this special equipment. The vehicles are operated by trained special response team deputies and are used when reasonably necessary to safely transport officers or protect and evacuate citizens.

Anti-ballistic equipment is just one protection tool available to officers. Responding to high-risk crisis situations involving weapons is a very complex business. Seconds and skill count and can literally mean the difference between life and death. Law enforcement must have a wide-array of options for quickly defusing such threats.

All first-responding deputies are trained to peaceably defuse situations whenever possible. However, they are also trained and prepared to immediately and appropriately respond to instances posing an imminent threat to life. Deputies are provided a range of less-lethal training and equipment as options.

While some situations will dictate the use of deadly force, less-lethal equipment and training has in many instances minimized the degree of force needed to safely resolve confrontations, reduced injuries to officers and suspects and undoubtedly saved lives.

Deputies are supported by a crisis negotiation team with advanced skills in defusing situations involving dangerously mentally ill and irrational persons. The team is dispatched to all situations where their expertise can help bring peaceable resolutions to volatile situations. The team’s training is in part supported and coordinated by the behavioral health function of the health department. The team has proven highly effective in successfully negotiating the surrender of armed and dangerous suspects and saved lives.

As local budget constraints have limited the acquisition of anti-ballistic equipment, obtaining equipment through federal surplus programs and modifying it for civilian use helps meet operational needs and makes fiscal sense.

Nationwide, some are expressing concerns about the militarization of the police. As vice chair of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, an agency responsible for training and certifying all local law enforcement officers in Washington, I can report that the opposite is occurring. Officers are not trained as soldiers preparing for war. Rather, the focus is on building a culture that reflects officers are guardians of the communities they serve and the Constitution. While officers remain highly trained in the tactics needed to protect themselves and others, additional emphasis is placed on de-escalating conflict as well as knowledge of the history and rule of law from which their authority is derived. This culture is reflected in Whatcom County as law enforcement agencies work together to protect the community while retaining the trust, confidence and respect of the citizens we serve.

Read more here:

Mental health services a critical investment

Mental health services a critical investment
Published on Wed, Apr 23, 2014 by Bill Elfo and Anne Deacon

Whatcom County is experiencing a disturbing trend shared with the rest of our nation. Our jails and prisons are becoming de facto mental health institutions for our country.

The number of seriously mentally ill people held on criminal charges in the Whatcom County Jail has increased significantly over the past decade. The county jail operates at nearly twice its designed capacity and very little space exists for special housing and treatment of these offenders.

The problem has been exasperated by federal and state reductions in funding for community-based mental health treatment. Some symptoms of untreated mental illness ultimately lead to crime and incarceration. Jail operations are also significantly impacted by reductions in services at Western State Hospital, where offenders receive competency evaluations. The long wait for these evaluations results in offenders remaining in county jail, often without the necessary treatment for restoring mental health and stability.

Many crimes and prosecutions could be prevented if community-based mental health services were available. But funding of these programs has also experienced significant reductions. Many mentally ill offenders who find themselves in jail are uninsured and do not have the resources to pay treatment costs. Under federal law, offenders insured through Medicaid and Medicare lose medical benefits once they are booked into jail. Treatment costs become the responsibility of local taxpayers. Once released from jail, they risk falling through the cracks of a disjointed system and may not re-enroll in these public benefit programs. Without appropriate treatment and medication, disabling symptoms may generate the same behaviors that send them back to jail as a direct result of their untreated disorders.

As Whatcom County continues to plan for a replacement jail facility with adequate space to safely hold, monitor and treat those with more serious forms of mental illness, a more effective treatment strategy could not be delayed. To help stem the revolving jail door and enhance public safety, the sheriff’s office partnered with the Whatcom County Health Department to expand the Jail Behavioral Health Program. The goal of the program is to stabilize behavioral health symptoms for jail inmates and ensure connection to community services upon their release.

A contract funded through the behavioral health sales tax provides professionals from a local non-profit psychiatric clinic to diagnose and treat acute symptoms of the most serious forms of mental illness. The process includes screening, triage, assessment, treatment planning, medications, counseling, coordination of civil commitment evaluations, connection to community-based treatment and assistance with healthcare enrollment or re-enrollment.

The program was initiated in February 2013. During the next 11 months, 7,601 people were booked into jail. Of those, 3,867 were referred for behavioral health services. Of those referred for treatment, 86 percent received services within 24 hours of booking. Staff is continuing to evaluate the program and will track improvements in behavioral health within the jail as well as the offenders who were treated in the jail and subsequently received timely community-based treatment.

Due in part to the expansion of mental health services within the jail and efforts made for a continuum of treatment in the community, the sheriff’s office recently received re-accreditation from the acclaimed National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC). The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is only one of two correctional agencies in the state to hold accreditation. The accreditation ensures that industry standards are being met and helps shield the county from potential risks and liabilities. NCCHC noted the exceptional collaboration between our behavioral health and correctional staff in its recent accreditation visit.

Behavioral health revenues also fund a number of other successful programs that are designed to enhance public safety and treat offenders. Whatcom County District Court provides intensive out-of-custody pre-trial supervision and treatment for many with mental health and substance abuse issues. The Superior Court operates an adult and juvenile drug court diversion program. A joint city of Bellingham municipal court and Whatcom County District Court mental health court is being planned as a means to divert offenders from the criminal justice system to effective mental health treatment and supervision.

Revenues also support mental health services in all seven school districts. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Intervening early to support our youth challenged with behavioral health concerns can prevent an unnecessary default to the criminal justice system later in life. It is a critical investment in the future health of our youth and ultimately our community. Mental health treatment works and we must ensure it is available to all who need it.

Anne Deacon is the Human Services Manager for the Whatcom County Health Department.
Bill Elfo is the Whatcom County Sheriff and Chair Whatcom County Behavioral Health Revenue Advisory Committee.

Serial Burglar Captured in Geneva Neighborhood

On Friday, February 7th at approximately 12:14 p.m. a resident in the 1500 block of Lakewood Lane (Geneva area) reported that a male suspect had pounded on her door and then attempted to open the doors and windows to her home. The resident was able to provide law enforcement with a good description of the suspect, his vehicle and direction of travel as he left the area.

Subsequently, the Sheriff’s Office received multiple reports of other residential burglaries that had occurred in the area including three additional residences on Lakewood Lane and the 1500 block of Geneva Street (total of four burglaries and one attempted burglary). One of the residents on Lakewood Lane whose home was burglarized came home to find the front door ajar and the suspect in her home. The suspect fled her home and she was able to provide a description similar to that provided by the other neighbor.

Items stolen during the course of burglaries included jewelry, computer equipment, United States and Canadian currency, prescription drugs, checks, and a credit card. Deputies located the vehicle that had fled the burglaries in the 4300 block of Columbus Street. Some tems believed to have been stolen in the burglary were located in the vehicle and in the residence following the execution of a search warrant.

A United States Department of Homeland Security Helicopter and Canine teams from the Sheriff’s Office assisted by canine teams from the Bellingham and Everett Police Departments initiated a search for the suspect. A Bellingham Police Canine team located Michael Johnsen hiding in a wooded area near the intersection of Parkstone and Overlook Drives. Deputies were able to match patterns on Johnsen’s foot ware with foot impressions left in the snow at the scene of the burglaries. Johnsen also closely matched the description provided by witnesses and was positively identified.

The suspect, Michael Johnsen dob 9/6/1978, was arrested and booked into the Whatcom County Jail on the following charges:
1) Attempted Residential Burglary (one count)
2) Residential Burglary (four counts)
3) Theft in the 2nd degree (two counts).
Johnsen is being referred to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for consideration of filing additional theft charges. Deputies will also be investigating to determine what other crimes Johnsen may have been committed in Whatcom County.

Deputies discovered that Johnsen was also wanted by the Washington State Department of Corrections for Escape. Johnsen was also arrested on the Department of Corrections warrant.

Sheriff Elfo said: “Alert citizens were instrumental in assisting law enforcement in solving Mr. Johnsen’s latest string of burglaries. Johnsen is a career criminal and a prolific burglar with a long and repeated history of victimizing the citizens of Whatcom County. He was previously arrested by the Sheriff’s Office for a string of burglaries in the central area of the County in 2008 and was subsequently sentenced to 7 years in prison. Prison officials released him July of 2103 to an out-of-custody program and he did not serve his entire sentence. Prior to Friday’s crimes, Mr. Johnsen had accumulated at total of 11 adult felony convictions for crimes including burglary, theft, escape, possession of stolen property as well as 12 adult gross misdemeanor convictions for vehicle prowling, reckless endangerment, possession of stolen property and drug related offenses and a series of other offenses including bail jumping. We are very pleased that he is off the streets.”

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

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.”


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.

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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.

Sheriff Elfo’s Budget Presentation to Council Members