King County Sheriff Strachan speaks on audit response and plans for the future with an election upcoming
Among many other important decisions in the upcoming November elections, King County residents will be choosing between current Sheriff Steve Strachan and challenger John Urquhart (you can read our interview with him here) for a four-year term.
Sheriff Strachan (pronounced “STRAN”) served as King County’s chief deputy since early 2011 under Sheriff Sue Rahr until her retirement in April, at which time she chose him to take over as interim sheriff. He was later sworn in with a unanimous vote from the county council.
Around four months later, an audit of KCSO released on July 24 found “significant issues” with the department’s handling and policies in dealing with community complaints against officers and use of force investigations. It listed 16 recommendations for improvement.
“The Sheriff’s Office is a good department, but the fact is we have some changes that need to be made in terms of making sure that our systems are very consistent, making sure that we are really focusing on partnerships and making sure we are holding each other accountable all the time,” Strachan said. “When we talk about culture change, it doesn’t mean we have a bad department, we have a good department, but we can do even better.”
He said the issues raised in the audit “have been identified for some time and things we have been working on for some time, but because this is a department with so many different work sites it has really been our challenge to make all of these things consistent and make sure they are always getting the follow-up because it is really important to the public right now.
“Sometimes audits are treated as something to be defended against, but I view them as an opportunity to learn and do even better at what we are doing,” he said.
Strachan said the KCSO Business Plan for 2012 – 2016, released earlier this year, already addresses several criticisms in the audit. (The business plan is available from at the KCSO website, http://www.kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff.aspx).
What does the Sheriff’s four-year plan entail?
Strachan said the business plan referenced above deals with three areas to be effective, “which means we fight crime and can actually keep people safe, and then the second part is to be respectful, which means we carry ourselves with humility, and the third part is to be accountable, which is really what the audit spoke to.”
He said his plans include, “Making sure we focus on cops on the street and detectives working cases. We need to make everything else more efficient so that, with the limited resources we have, we can really make sure we have that visible patrol and there detectives out there working cases.”
On the efficiency front, Strachan said, “I really want to increase our partnerships with our municipal police departments in King County and find ways that we can work together, and it doesn’t mean we have to take departments over or necessarily become a contractor for them, it means that if we can find any overlapping areas where we can join together and save money and still get the job done, increasing those partnerships … is another thing I’d really like to do as sheriff.”
He said sharing technology with King County municipal police departments is part of that partnership as well – necessary steps in dealing with continual budget cuts to public safety.
To deal with those budget shortfalls, Strachan said his department has already reworked their philosophy in deploying deputies. Where KCSO once had too many deputies in one area, not enough in another, and a lack of communication to be aware of surplus, they would call in deputies for overtime and further drain the budget. Now, he said, they are using a more fluid model where deputies are staffed based on “call load and the time of day – where we try to match officers to the amount of calls,” and supervisors have the ability to shift on-the-clock deputies to different areas if needed.
Strachan said he has three focus areas for dealing with gangs: First, reducing gang violence by ensuring law enforcement has the right intelligence, and working with police chiefs throughout the county to share that information by “improving our databases … so we can connect the dots even better and make sure its available to the officers and detectives.”
Second, he said, is making arrests of gang-affiliated serial property crime offenders (burglaries and car thefts), which he called a “relatively small” group. “We need to target them and dig them out.”
Third is reducing juvenile prostitution: “I’m very interested in making King County an unfriendly place for those who traffic in juvenile prostitution,” said Strachan.
“You look at all the scrutiny of law enforcement right now (such as) the issues with Seattle PD and the Department of Justice and everything,” Strachan said. “Our attitude at the Sheriff’s Office is we certainly have improvements to make but we want to get ahead of it, we want to be very, very open and inviting to improvements, and we want to be a leader in public trust and accountability.”
Prior to joining KCSO in 2011, Sheriff Strachan was Kent’s police chief since 2006. He has been in law enforcement for 25 years in Washington and Minnesota. He said he was working on a degree in journalism when he landed a radio internship that required calling local police offices for public safety stories. He learned through that process that he was more interested in joining law enforcement than reporting on it. He lives in SeaTac today.