May 23, 2015

Sheriff Elfo’s Letter to Whatcom County Council for April 14th 2015 Hearing on New Jail

April 9, 2015

Dear Members of the Whatcom County Council:

The purpose of this communication is to provide you with information I wish you to consider in conjunction with the public hearing entitled on the agenda as “comment on the proposal for a new Whatcom County Jail and offer specific ideas for jail diversion programs” scheduled for April 14th, 2015.

I previously testified before Council and provided written information regarding the conditions within the Whatcom County Jail and Sheriff’s Office headquarters. As Sheriff, I am responsible for operating the Jail in a safe, constitutional and humane manner. I am also responsible for our dedicated and professional jail staff that put their lives on the line every day to protect the citizens of Whatcom County; the many contracted service providers who work in the Jail; and those who visit the facility.

We have a desperate need to replace the failing Whatcom County Jail. I join the Whatcom County Public Defender, the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney, all four Whatcom County Superior Court Judges, both Whatcom County District Court Judges and the County Executive in emphasizing the critical state we are in and the urgency of moving forward. While it is ultimately the County Council’s responsibility to determine whether or not the Jail will be replaced and the timetable for doing so, the consequences of not moving forward will place Whatcom County and other jurisdictions that use the Jail in a precarious position. I fully understand the complexity of this decision given the costs and the need for concurrence under the plan presented by the County Executive requiring concurrence of seven mayors and city council bodies. However the cost of delaying or ignoring this issue indefinitely will be higher.

Given significant concerns regarding the structural integrity of the building; the constant failure of critical operating systems; reports from the United States Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections and the Bellingham Fire Department that raised the specter of a “catastrophic loss of life,” in the event of fire or other calamity; a report by the Jail Planning Task Force identifying a “critical” need to replace the jail citing “life-safety” issues; and our consistent exceeding of rated jail capacity by substantial margins, I have serious reservations about our ability to continue to maintain legal, safety and health standards. Long before my initial appointment as Sheriff in 2003, published standards for correctional facilities that included physical plant criteria for space, plumbing and infrastructure requirements were suspended because of “overcrowded conditions.” The deviation from these standards has only grown worse.

The extent and nature of the problem are not new and were identified in the 1990s by the “Blue Ribbon Committee on Criminal Justice.” A 2003 Bellingham Herald editorial referenced: “jail overcrowding and its consequences have been apparent for at least six years [1997]…because local law makers have been unable or unwilling to find ways to pay for new facilities.” In 2008, the Whatcom County Law and Justice Council reported on progress on a 2000 Law and Justice Report recommendation that identified a need to build a new jail and stated “[T[he Law and Justice Council puts building a new main jail as soon as possible as its highest priority recommendation.” The report went on to discuss the need to expand secure adult jail facilities and noted that the then new work center was expected to be filled primarily with misdemeanant commitments for jail time due to the lack of jail space and noted that its impact on the main jail and would be minimal. It emphasized the County’s plan to move ahead with a larger expandable facility to meet the county’s need for fifty years and anticipated that the project would take five to eight years.

The Sheriff’s Office established one of the highest standards for the recruitment and selection of Corrections Deputies. We do not experience misconduct issues involving inmate abuse that are described in articles from around the country that were sent to Council. Our Corrections deputies have made huge concessions to keep the facility functioning. However, in part due to conditions within the facility, we are finding it challenging to attract and retain our high-quality personnel. This has resulted in workplace safety issues and deputies constantly being summoned back to work for mandatory overtime. If we are going to maintain the degree of professionalism that now exists, the jail issue needs to be resolved and working conditions improved.

The main Jail facility opened in 1984. Over the years jail population levels were significantly impacted by a variety of factors including legislative mandates relating to sentences for driving under the influence and related offenses; mandatory arrest and incarceration for domestic violence offenses; and a series of changes to sentencing laws that transferred responsibility for convicted felons from the State Department of Corrections to County Jails.

For example, in this Legislative session, 2SHB1884 proposed to convert sentences for several serious crimes from state prison to county jail sentences and once again, did not provide any of the operational or capital funding needed to effectuate this change.

OFFENSE CURRENT 2SHB1885
3rd time Auto Theft 17-22 months state prison Possible 60 days county jail
3rd time Burglary 2nd 12-16 months state prison Possible 30 days county jail
3rd time Identity Theft 12-14 months state prison Possible 30 days County Jail

Local ordinances criminalizing various behaviors often result in arrests for either the crime committed or in arrest warrants for failing to appear in court for the alleged violation of the ordinance. For example, while Bellingham police officers exercise good discretion, they have no choice but to arrest a person wanted on a warrant for failure to appear or when there is a threat or a continual issue of public disorder. Below is a list of 2014 bookings into the Whatcom County Jail on charges of violating various provisions of the Bellingham Municipal Code.

Bellingham Municipal Code Violations Number of Offenses Booked into Whatcom (does not include violations of RCW) County Jail
Person under 21 <40 grams of marijuana
10.08.020A = 2
Unlawful Inhalation 10.080.030 = 2
Shoplifting Less than $50 goods 10.12.020 = 175
Disorderly Conduct/Abusive Language 10.24.010.A = 6
Disorderly Conduct/Disrupt Lawful Assembly 10.24.010D = 1
Disorderly Conduct / Cause/Engage/Provoke Fight 10.24.010D = 19
Disorderly Conduct/Disturbing the Peace = 11
Urinating in Public 10.24.020 = 15
Sitting or Lying on Public Sidewalks 10.24.070 = 15
Obstructing 10.24.100 = 61
Discharging Firearms 10.30.010 = 1
Stun Guns/Tasers 10.30.020 = 4
Animal Cruelty 7.16.010 = 2
Parks Restricted Area 8.04.130 = 4
Garbage Violation 9.12.080 = 19
Rodent Control 9.28.060 = 1

During the 1990s and early 2000s, space designated for storage, education and treatment were converted to hold inmates and additional beds were installed in cells and showers. The bottom line is that the facility, originally designed to hold 148 inmates with mixed security and classification ratings, has held up to 321. As most low-risk sentenced offenders are now housed at the Jail Work Center, the population of the Main Jail consists mostly of higher risk offenders; those who are dangerously mentally ill; and those who may not for a variety of circumstances be diverted.

8 inmates in cell

Eight inmates housed in a cell originally designed as a shower room and converted to hold two inmates

Our County Jail system is the only jail system in Whatcom County and since opening, has booked and detained offenders on charges and sentences generated by all municipalities, tribes, state agencies and the courts. We are also required by law to detain all fugitives from justice wanted in other states. County Executive Louws recent presentation to Council highlighted the division of jail beds and bookings by the responsible entity and presented a plan that includes continuing to provide jail space for the cities and other entities to incarcerate their misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenders.

Structural failures have raised grave security concerns. Inmates have been able to push out windows and drop lines to the street below to introduce contraband into the facility; manipulate locks to open cell doors; and gain access to adjoining cells by removing grout between the cinder block walls. Public health and the control of contagious disease within the facility is a major problem given that a large segment of the population does not exercise good hygiene or health practices and are detained closely together in small cells. Our staff has contracted some of these contagious diseases that include Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Aggravating matters further is a constantly failing plumbing system that results in toilets backing up; sewage pipes leaking and a frequent lack of hot water for hand washing, showering and general sanitation. In 2013, the Jail experienced an increase in its water usage by 1 million gallons. This continued into 2014. The County Facilities Department has not definitively determined the reason for this dramatic increase but believes the issue is attributable to an antiquated and overused plumbing system and its manipulation by inmates. The County Facilities staff does its best to address these issues but problems constantly recur and remediation is expensive.

While the electronic control system was recently replaced through a retrofit, failures posing security risks continue. I recently gave a tour of the facility to a group of citizens when a cell door opened without any prompting from staff. Many of these deficiencies in the physical structure and operating systems are likely the result of decades of use far beyond their designed purpose.

Questions arose about diverting offenders from jail and the issue of bail for those housed within the jail. Law enforcement only has the discretion to book a person into jail for up to 24 hours on either probable cause to believe a crime has been committed or in their execution of an arrest warrant commanding them to take a named person into custody. Within 24 hours, the incarcerated person will generally appear before a judge who will render a decision on release conditions. While I do not purport to speak for the ten separate courts that adjudicate issues related to inmates within our jail, these decisions are made on the basis of existing law and court rules. Many offenders are released on their own recognizance after first appearance.

Specific questions were raised about the appropriateness of bail as a condition of release. Rules for setting bail are promulgated by the Washington State Supreme Court and contained in Criminal Court Rules (Superior Court) and the Criminal Rules for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction (District and Municipal Court). The Rules state that there is a presumption in the law that a person charged with a non-capital crime shall be entitled to release pending trial on their personal recognizance. The court may impose a number of conditions of release, including bail, if it makes a finding that such recognizance will not assure the accused’s appearance; there is a likely danger that the accuse will commit a violent crime; or that the accused will seek to intimidate witnesses or unlawfully interfere with the administration of justice. The court may require bail only if no less restrictive condition or combination of conditions would reasonable assure the safety of the community; prevent witness intimidation or the administration of justice. In setting a bond, the court is required to consider the accused’s financial resources. During 2014, 58% of the people who are booked into the Whatcom County Jail are released within 3 days and 64.6% are released within 7 days.

The court is also responsible for sentencing and consistent with the requirements of the law, determine if and for how long a person will remain incarcerated in the jail.

As Sheriff, I formerly had the authority to release sentenced inmates when the jail reached critical peaks. The courts ordered a halt to this practice and the Sheriff does not have the authority to unilaterally release sentenced offenders as a mechanism to control the jail population. While judges are attuned to the problem and are very cooperative in helping control the jail population crisis, they must follow the law in making their release decisions.

Sheriff’s deputies and most other law enforcement officers make extensive use of field citations as an alternative to booking misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenders who are charged with relatively minor crimes not involving an imminent threat to public safety. In 2014, Whatcom County deputy sheriffs alone cited and released 566 misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor offenders without booking them into jail. Jail staff also has the ability to “book and release” misdemeanor/gross misdemeanor offenders with a field citation to help free up jail space and move appropriate offenders out of custody. Law enforcement may not unilaterally release a suspect if there is an outstanding arrest warrant. Most domestic violence and order violations and cases involving Driving Under the Influence (DUI) also mandate booking. In many instances law enforcement officers refer cases (felony and misdemeanor) directly to the appropriate prosecutor’s office for a decision as to whether charges will be filed. In these cases, offenders are often issued a summons to appear in court rather than physically arrested and booked into jail.
Many offenders are diverted from Jail due to the efforts of Whatcom County District Court Probation which supervises over 2,000 pre-trial and convicted misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenders.

I previously provided Council with an extensive review and information on the Sheriff’s Office internal jail alternative programs that provide appropriately classified offenders alternatives to incarceration in the main jail. Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office operates one of the most robust jail alternative programs in Washington State maximizing the use of electronic home monitoring; electronic home detention; and out of custody and in-custody work crews to the extent these programs are consistent with public safety and the advice we receive from the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office regarding the law and liability. These programs often enable offenders to maintain employment and continue their education while serving their sentence. For others, the programs help instill the habits and skills needed to gain employment. In essence, every sentenced offender who meets appropriate security classifications is eligible to participate.

At present, there are approximately 300 offenders who are required to serve court-imposed jail sentences (e.g. DUI) that the Sheriff’s Office has not been able to accept into the facility due to the lack of space. These offenders make arrangements to commence serving their sentences to move on with their lives. However upon reporting to Jail, we all too often have to turn them away as the jail population has swelled and there is no space available.

There have been questions about mental illness, addiction and the use of jail space. America is experiencing a disturbing and increasing trend in the number of offenders housed in its county jails that suffer from severe, persistent and often dangerous forms of mental illness and addiction disorders. The Whatcom County Jail is no exception. While most people with mental illness do not commit crime, certain types of mental illness and addictions ultimately lead to crime and incarceration. The severity of crimes varies greatly, but range from offenses against public order and property to those involving extremely serious and violent offenses such as rape, arson and murder.

Over the past 60 years, there has been a 95% reduction in the supply of inpatient psychiatric beds in the United States. Correspondingly, alternative treatment models never materialized so as to fully meet needs. As a result, there is less access to long-term care options. This population includes those assessed as lacking insight, chronically unable to care for themselves, and potentially dangerous to themselves and the public. The lack of available treatment and housing for those suffering from dangerous forms of mental illness and addictions has unfortunately resulted in jails becoming the largest mental health care providers in America. The United States Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that over 64% of people in jails suffer from mental health problems (24% reported as “serious mental illness) and 68% have a substance abuse disorder. The Whatcom County Jail population approximates these same proportions and many offenders have co-occurring mental health and addiction issues.

Over the past decade, reductions in state and federal funding for community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment in Washington State have resulted in a crisis in terms of available treatment and housing. The Associated Press reported: “A report by Mental Health America that ranked states based on whether mentally ill people had access to care placed Washington 48th.” The presentation by Mr. Valentine of the North Sound Regional Service Network on the State’s expanded Medicaid program at the March and the potential funding of crisis centers at the March 31st Council Finance Committee meeting does offer some potential opportunities for improvement.

Research further indicates that even when treatment is available; it is often episodic and lacks the continuity needed to stabilize symptoms. Many patients become homeless, which may increases the likelihood of crime and arrest. Family members of people with mental illness who attempt to intervene and seek involuntary treatment are often frustrated by the lack of services and the high threshold criteria for involuntary commitments. Psychiatric in-patient care providers frequently refuse to admit patients because they are ill; have co-occurring addiction issues; or are violently out of control. In some cases, hospitals and other health care providers refer patients for arrest because they are unmanageable and assault staff and other patients.

Several years ago, following recommendations from the Law and Justice Council, leaders in the Sheriff’s Office Law Enforcement and Corrections Bureaus; the Health Department; the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office; local police representatives and the mental health community were tasked with forming a working group to study the need for a fully functional mental health triage center. A plan was developed to provide a fully functional center that would allow law enforcement to divert minor offenders with mental health issues from the criminal justice system to treatment. While in 2007 a 14-bed behavioral health triage center opened to divert offenders whose main issues were mental health, alcohol or substance abuse, the facility was not fully funded for its intended and recommended purpose. It currently does little to directly divert offenders from jail.

Law enforcement has the ability to involuntarily take people who as a result of mental illness are gravely disabled or present a likelihood of serious harm. The local process involves taking them to the emergency room for an evaluation by a mental health professional. A frequently occurring theme is for the person to be quickly released from custody. For example, in February deputies responded to a 9-1-1 call from a man who indicated that he had armed himself with a knife and wanted deputies to kill him. Deputies arrived to find the man standing in the middle of the road waiving a knife and hammer. He took off his clothes. Our crisis negotiators spent over an hour convincing him to surrender. He was taken for a mental health evaluation and within 24 hours, was released from the hospital and was on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page wanting to know how to get his knife back. He continued to make implied threats against law enforcement the following week. This example is not an aberration but rather a common theme officers encountered by officers on a recurring basis.

While some options exist under existing federal law for the use of crisis stabilization units and triage centers as an alternative to incarceration, the Legislature enacted a series of statutes (RCW 10.31-110-10.31.120) that will allow law enforcement to divert an “individual who committed acts constituting a non-felony crime that is not a serious offense as identified in RCW 10.77.092 and the individual is known by history or consultation with the regional support network to suffer from a mental disorder” to several alternatives that include triage and crisis stabilization units. The law takes effect on April 1, 2016 and requires concurrence with the Prosecutor.

Compounding the problem are Washington State laws governing competency determinations and treatment to restore the competency and stability to offenders with acute symptoms of mental illness. While the law requires that evaluations and involuntary treatment be performed at Western State Hospital, the Legislature in recent years reduced the programs that provide these services. The result is very violent offenders accused of the most dangerous of crimes remain confined in the County Jail for months while they await the treatment needed to restore competency and stability. The backlog of those awaiting competency determinations and treatment within jails exacerbates existing safety and offender management issues.

One only has to do a Google search of news articles to find that Western State Hospital is the highest risk place to work in Washington State. Workers are assaulted by violence the job 60 times more than the average worker in the State. These offenders are now housed for longer periods in our jail which has little room to manage them. This has exposed staff and contracted workers to increased risk.

The Whatcom County Jail is the de facto largest behavioral health institution in our community. However, it operates at nearly twice its designed capacity and lacks sufficient space to safely house, manage or optimally treat those with serious forms of mental illness and addiction issues.
Offenders requiring close monitoring are housed in a busy booking area that operates 24-hours a day. As little space exists for mental health and chemical dependency professionals to communicate with offenders, evaluation, treatment and counseling normally occur through a hatch in the steel door that separates inmates from staff. These physical limitations and the lack of privacy hamper the effectiveness of treatment and efforts to restore stability. The lack of staffing and space also preclude frequent visitation and the maintenance of family connections that are often vital to post-release success. An absence of appropriate housing for those with dangerous forms of mental illness creates enormous safety issues for staff and other inmates. Persistently overcrowded conditions often aggravate existing mental health symptoms.

Close Observation cell used for housing offenders with significant and threatening mental health issues is located in the noisy and busy booking areaclose observation

Mental health services are often delivered by “whispering” through a food tray hatch in the cell doormental health services

While jails may not be the optimal first default for minor offenders with behavioral disorders who do not pose a threat to public safety, the law requires and will likely continue to require that jails hold some people who suffer from mental illness or addiction issues who have committed crimes. While these offenders are committed to our custody, we have a moral, ethical and legal obligation to hold them in a safe and humane manner and not aggravate or compound existing disorders.

While there are no simple or immediate solutions to this problem, the Sheriff’s Office worked within the parameters of existing limitations to ensure that the offenders with serious mental health and addiction problems are to the extent possible, evaluated and treated while in jail. However, our experience with recidivism demonstrated many offenders upon being released from jail, either lacked access to or had an unwillingness to follow through with referrals for community-based treatment and soon re-offended. Without appropriate treatment and medication, disabling symptoms often generate the same behaviors that send them back to jail as a direct result of their untreated disorders. Nationally, studies report that offenders with serious mental illness are 2 to 3 times more likely that those without mental illness to be re-incarcerated.

One major obstacle to the availability of community-based mental health services for released offenders is their inability to pay. Most mentally ill offenders are uninsured. Even when eligible for health care subsidies, most have not enrolled. While many are eligible for Medicaid that would otherwise help pay costs, federal and state regulations suspend Medicaid eligibility once offenders are incarcerated in jail. Re-enrollment in Medicaid and application for other federal insurance benefits is an onerous process. Mentally ill and chronically addicted offenders often need help to access these benefits. Without these benefits and the connection to treatment, their untreated symptoms may quickly return them to jail.

In 2008, the County Council enacted Chapter 3.37 “Sales and Use Tax for Chemical Dependency or Mental Health Treatment Services and Therapeutic Court Programs” for the purpose of “providing new or expanded chemical dependency or mental health treatment services and for the operation of new or expanded therapeutic court programs, and as otherwise authorized by the laws of the state of Washington…” Revenues collected pursuant to that sales and use tax have funded programs that have made significant improvements to the delivery of mental health services within the jail and to offenders who re-entering the community. Ms. Deacon of the Health Department and her staff provided you a summary of these programs at the March 31st Council meeting.

In 2013, the Sheriff’s Office partnered with the County Health Department to enhance the delivery of mental health and addiction services within the jail through the “Jail Behavioral Health Program.” Relying on sales tax funding, the goal of this program is to stabilize behavioral health symptoms for those incarcerated in the jail and ensure effective connections to community-based services upon their release. A local psychiatric clinic places professionals within the jail to diagnose and treat acute symptoms. This process includes screening, triage, assessment, treatment planning, medications, counseling, coordination of civil commitment and evaluations. Behavioral health staff develop release plans that include solid connections and follow up with community-based treatment; assistance with health care enrollment or re-enrollment; and if needed, assisting with “co-pays” and housing. Ms. Deacon and her staff provided you with the most recent program evaluation and report on these jail-based programs at the March 31st Council meeting.

As law enforcement is often the first and the only 24/7 first responders available to address emergencies involving mental health crisis, the Sheriff’s Office has trained all deputies to address issues involving those in mental health crisis. It also established a specialized team of highly-trained professionals to peaceably resolve the most dangerous and challenging of cases.

As highlighted by Ms. Deacon and her staff, the sales tax has supported a number of prevention and treatment programs external to the Sheriff’s Office that helps prevent persons from entering the criminal justice system.

Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative: an evidence-based program that dramatically dropped the number of incarcerated children in the Whatcom County Juvenile Detention Center and resulted in a decrease in the number of children who go on to commit crime as adults;

School Based Behavioral Health Specialist Program: at least one behavioral health specialist is assigned to every school district in Whatcom County to address issues of addiction and manifestations of mental illness;

Behavioral Health Triage Center: provides mental health crisis and substance abuse treatment; while originally envisioned as a potential means for law enforcement to divert those in crisis from the criminal justice to the mental health system, changes in funding streams prevented the facility from fully serving this purpose; however, it provides an alternative for those seeking professional assistance before committing crimes. Recent developments related to the expansion of the state Medicaid program may fund future expanded capabilities and capacity;

Mental Health Courts: Whatcom County funded the recently established Mental Health Courts within the Whatcom County District Court and the Bellingham Municipal Court. These courts are modeled under evidence-based research and success in other jurisdictions and follow a model requiring treatment and compliance;

Drug Court: Whatcom County completely funds the Whatcom Superior Court Drug Court that offers treatment alternatives for selected offenders whose crimes can be attributed to addictions;
Special Intensive District Court Probation: This program provides intensive pre-trial and post-conviction supervision and treatment of those with addiction issues and has helped reduce jail population through community-based supervision and successful no-return rates for habitual offenders.
I appreciate the support of the Council in working with the Legislature to establish a fourth Superior Court Judge position in and for Whatcom County. This may help the courts more rapidly resolve felony cases and ultimately, help control the jail population.

As Sheriff I fully supported treatment and diversion programs and have worked in close partnership with the Health Department and the Executive’s Office to make these programs successful. While opportunities may exist to reduce or control jail needs, the current jail needs to be replaced as quickly as possible. The proposed new jail will provide space for mental health and substance abuse programs for those that must be incarcerated while providing safe and humane conditions for visitors, staff and offenders.

Please be assured of my continued coordination and cooperation as treatment and diversion programs external to the Sheriff’s Office are expanded or pursued.
Sincerely,
Bill Elfo, Sheriff

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2015/01/11/4069563_civic-agenda-whatcom-county-plans.html?sp=/99/122/&rh=1#storylink=cpy

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: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2014/09/08/3840881/military-surplus-equipment-helps.html#storylink=cpy

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.

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

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.