RAYMOND — Two of the three sheriff candidates faced off at a July 18 forum at the Raymond Theatre. Sponsored by Willapa Bay Resistance, a local progressive activist group, the event featured questions about response times, sheriff’s office relations with ICE, dealing with conflicts of interest and other topics.
Two-term incumbent Scott Johnson, a Democrat, emphasized his experience and work ethic. Shoalwater Police Chief Robin Souvenir, an Independent, promised to improve morale in the sheriff’s office and work more closely with community members and county departments. Sean Eastham, a Republican Pacific County sheriff’s deputy, did not attend the debate. He was on vacation.
Moderators gave the candidates two minutes each for opening statements, responses to questions and closing statements. Most of the questions were composed by members of WBR, but the host also asked a few audience-generated questions.
Johnson and Souvenir, who have known each other for about 20 years, were mostly cordial with one another, although there was some friendly sparring.
“Most of you know that I write notes on my hand,” Johnson said, showing the audience that he had indeed covered his palm in writing. “Robin has offered to shake my hand a few times,” he added.
“I wrote my notes on paper,” Souvenir replied, laughing.
National, but not local
WBR is a left-leaning group that works on behalf of undocumented immigrants and various social justice causes. Some of their questions focused on topics that are more relevant on a national scale than in Pacific County. For example, the moderator asked Johnson and Souvenir how they would handle an excessive use-of-force complaint or officer-involved shooting. Both said they would ask authorities in neighboring counties, or a regional interdepartmental team that specializes in investigating officer-involved incidents, to take over the case.
Nationwide, there have been numerous incidents in which unarmed people were killed or assaulted by officers, but thus far, police violence has not been an issue here. On July 21, several local law enforcement leaders said they thought there had not been an officer-involved shooting in the county for about 40 years.
Jail and bail
Moderators wanted to know if the candidates would consider alternatives to cash bail at the county jail. Bail-reform advocates across the U.S. are pushing for home monitoring, evidence-based risk assessments and other alternatives, because cash bail systems often let wealthier offenders go free, while poor ones get stuck in jail until trial. However, there has been no serious discussion of bail reform in Pacific County to date. With the county’s 29-bed jail frequently holding as many as 50 inmates, local law enforcement people regularly make pragmatic decisions about who actually needs to be in jail.
Both candidates looked perplexed — possibly because law enforcement officers have nothing to do with setting bail. Souvenir said when the Sheriff’s Office is effectively reducing crime, the census in the jail will drop. Johnson said keeping people in jail wasn’t necessarily bad.
“Eight years ago, people made it clear they wanted bad people behind bars,” Johnson said, adding that he was “very proud” of keeping the jail full.
Candidates on ICE
The moderator asked the candidates how they felt about cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Both said the sheriff’s office should limit its involvement to enforcing state laws, and backing up ICE officers in emergencies.
“We shouldn’t be trying to enforce federal law when we don’t have jurisdiction,” Souvenir said. “If [immigrants] are violating an RCW [Washington state law], then it needs to be addressed. They need to be treated the same as anybody else. No better, no worse.”
Johnson, still smarting from allegations this spring that he was not honest about the extent of his contact with ICE, said he was glad immigration came up.
“That’s one of the biggest things we are misperceived on,” Johnson said. He described a recent incident in which ICE officers entered a local business without a warrant and arrested a long-term, but undocumented resident who did not appear to have a criminal history.
“The federal government should be here to help us get rid of criminal aliens,” Johnson said. He said he has been talking with the Governor’s Office, which, in turn, has been pressuring ICE to ease up on the county. He said he is also trying to coordinate a meeting with agents from the Seattle and Portland ICE offices. Johnson said agents have only been to the county five times in more recent months, after making a slew of arrests and raids earlier this year.
“That being said, it’s five times too many,” Johnson said.
Ideas and goals
Other questions focused on how the candidates would handle community relations, improve services and attract and retain deputies.
Both agreed that transparency and effective communication with citizens are crucial. Johnson touted his newly-formed neighborhood watch group, a volunteer effort that is currently focused on the north Peninsula. He said his office does a good job of spreading information through a Facebook page, email alerts, and by having PCSO personnel attend local events.
Souvenir said he supports the neighborhood watch program, but wants to go one step further and form a citizen advisory board.
“It would help with that transparency,” Souvenir said.
They also discussed their ideas for providing 24-hour coverage and faster response times.
Johnson said PCSO uses data to make strategic decisions about when and where to schedule deputies.
“I would love nothing more than to always have 24-hour coverage. Today we provide that almost every day of the week,” Johnson said. “I’m going to continue, as I have, to apply for grants over and over until we receive more deputies to add to our staff.”
“One thing I would entertain is opening up the county a little bit. I would also ask for input of the deputies that are working,” Souvenir said. He said periodically changing deputies’ assignments would prevent stagnation, balance workloads and help deputies become familiar with other parts of the county.
Johnson said one of his goals is to restore PCSO’s defunct drug task force. He said he has been campaigning for funding in Olympia.
Souvenir said the sheriff’s office needs to increase cooperation both internally, and with other departments and agencies. His most immediate goal would be to unite and motivate deputies behind shared goals.
“I hear a lot of ‘I, I, I,’. My leadership style is a bit different,” Souvenir said, adding that he thought county departments could make more of their limited budgets by teaming up to tackle persistent issues like abandoned cars.
Souvenir emphasized his collaborative, team-oriented leadership style.
“I think it’s important not to have a top-down approach because no accomplishment is made with one person,” Souvenir said. “I’ve been doing this for a while. We’ve done some amazing things at Shoalwater. We built it from basically nothing to a department that is respected.”
“Folks, I think we do have an amazing place already,” Johnson said in closing. He described his extensive training at “sheriff schools” around the country, but said his biggest strength was his commitment to serving the community.
“You have someone right here in front of you that cares about everyone in this room,” Johnson said.