October 28, 2022
What do ‘community policing’ and ‘police reform’ mean … in the islands?
Kathryn Wheeler

Ready to roll out when called, San Juan County Sheriff’s Department vehicles wait outside the courthouse. Incumbent Sheriff Ron Krebs is facing a challenge from Sgt. Eric Peter, at a time of demographic shifts in the county and statewide adjustment to police reform laws. (Kathryn Wheeler photo © 2022)

October 28, 2022
What do ‘community policing’ and ‘police reform’ mean … in the islands?
Kathryn Wheeler

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In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin, the San Juan Islands saw a wave of gatherings to honor Floyd’s life and express outrage over police brutality. The gatherings looked nearly identical to others happening across the country, with participants weeping and holding signs. Notably different, however, were the police officers shedding tears and expressing outrage alongside them. 

The Sheriff’s Department of San Juan County has always been known for its close ties with residents. “Most of the time we know that person and that person’s family. It allows us to be closer to the family. They’re not just a number or statistic, they’re a member of the greater family,” said seven-year incumbent Sheriff Ron Krebs, who is facing Sgt. Eric Peter in the November Sheriff’s election.

Krebs attributes the islands’ brand of policing—a de-escalation and relationship-oriented model—to the small size of the county, which has a population of 18,557 as of 2021 and spans 621 square miles consisting of 172 islands, four served by ferries. In contrast, Seattle has a population of nearly 734,000 and spans only 83 square miles. 

Incumbent Sheriff Ron Krebs, left, and Sgt. Eric Peter ponder changes in policing and the particular patterns in the San Juan Islands, as they vie for the office of sheriff in the general election. (Courtesy photos)

Both Krebs and Peter want to continue this practice of community policing as sheriff, but they hold different views on whether the department needs to change to do so. 

Emotional intelligence

Peter is motivated by what he describes as a wholesale shift in how he views his profession. This shift occurred in his later years as a Houston police officera position he held for 22 years before becoming patrol sergeant in San Juan County in 2017. Peter began to recognize the faults in his and his department’s policing, which “had to do with the ways we communicate, what our facial expressions look like … if we’re saying one thing and the look on our face says another.” 

Peter said he came to see that he and other officers often hold judgements about certain kinds of communities. This hit especially hard when one of his own family members started abusing drugs and became part of a community that was looked down upon by officers. These attitudes created a negative bias that Peter saw affecting his department’s policing. 

Peter’s realizations sparked an interest in emotional intelligence (EI) training for police officers, which teaches how to recognize and handle emotions, and provides skills to manage emotions in tense situations. Peter sees this as necessary to effective community policing. Police, he said, must have “a focus on de-escalation, communication and emotional intelligence.” 

When Peter arrived in the San Juans, he became the EI trainer for the county’s police department, which formerly outsourced the training. If elected sheriff, he plans to develop further training and focus on working with diverse populations, which he sees as a gap in the department. 

Peter also argues that the department needs to better abide by policy standards seen on the mainland, stating that “What I’ve observed over five-plus years here severely lacks consistent following of policies and procedures.” Additionally, he supports 24-hour police coverage, a stronger effort to promote diversity in the department, more engagement with the Latino community and imlementing friendly school visits and programs with youth.

The people who serve

Incumbent Krebs maintains that “things are going really well at the sheriff’s office right now,” and sees few areas in the department that need significant change; further “almost 100% of our success is the quality of men and women we’ve been able to hire.” He is interested in bringing more women into the department. The newly implemented de-escalation, domestic violence and mental health trainings are moving the department in a positive direction, constantly changing “to evolve with the times,” he said. 

He also attributes much of the department’s success to the low volume of calls the office receives. “We spend 45 minutes talking to people. [We] can take as much time as we need,” he said. Krebs said the department does a great job of getting to know young people, which makes it easier to handle negative situations that may arise later. Re questions of policy compliance, he emphatically stated, “We follow our policies.”

As to why he’s running for reelection, he said ,“I like what I do, I love this community, I have family here, I know everybody. It’s like home. It’s like family.”

Krebs characterized the islands as being protected from mainland issues because of the “moat” around them: the surrounding waters of the Salish Sea generally keep crime contained and criminals out. Police are stationed only on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan islands. Residents are scattered across farmlands, forests and rocky coastlines, and there are only a handful of major roads—none of which are highways. 

Crime rates, perps and victims

The islands’ crime levels are low—roughly 29 times less than what is seen in Seattle, according to 2021 crime statistics listed on the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer website. Crimes against property, burglary and theft account for 71% of the crime in the county, followed by roughly equal percentages of assaults, vandalism or destruction of property, and drug offenses. 

About 35% of the county’s population is age 65 and over, compared to Seattle where only 12.5% are age 65 and over. Research shows that older people comprise the lowest percentage of criminal offenders. In addition, rural areas tend to see fewer crimes than urban ones, and a lower population often correlates with fewer crimes. 

Say Their Names Lopez Island
Community members—including sheriff’s office personnel, noted Sheriff Krebs—came together over social justice during a surge of Black Lives Matter rallies and other actions in 2020, including via a set of signs on Lopez Island commemorating victims of police actions. (Salish Current photo ©)

The laid-back culture of the islands often permeates the way police officers handle situations. “We don’t have calls backing up on us,” said Krebs, speaking of his ability to spend ample amounts of time dealing with situations which would often need to be rushed in higher-crime areas. The availability of time that officers have on the islands also allows them to show up to community events, such as the 2020 Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests or other community rallies. “We are always there to assist the community,” Krebs added. 

“Law officers come here so they can practice a brand of policing that most agencies wish they could,” said Krebs. This style of policing particularly stands out in a time when the rest of Washington is in a battle over police reform efforts. 

Changes in practices

In 2021, in the wake of BLM protests and national outrage over police brutality, Gov. Jay Inslee signed more than a dozen laws that brought significant change to police practices. 

The laws banned the use of chokeholds, no-knock warrants and neck restraints, and made it easier to discipline police officers who use excessive force. The laws required officers to report fellow officers engaging in misconduct and created a statewide Office of Independent Investigations to investigate officer misconduct. They also introduced more de-escalation and mental-health-oriented tactics, and greatly reduced the circumstances in which police can pursue vehicles and detain suspects not yet convicted of a crime.

Krebs and Peter expressed frustration with changes that added challenges to their jobs. Krebs in 2021 wrote in a letter to the San Juan Islander saying that, while the laws are well-intended, they will “significantly affect our ability to detect and prevent crime and apprehend those who have committed criminal acts.” 

He specifically pointed to problems created by new restrictions to “Terry stops,” which allowed officers to detain without direct evidence those they suspect have committed or will commit a crime, and changes in being able to use force or involuntarily commit those using drugs or in a mental health crisis. 

Similarly, Peter said that officers have been hamstrung by heavy restrictions on detaining or pursuing individuals in situations where a crime is suspected. “It doesn’t take long for people committing crimes to say ‘Oh, look they’re not chasing us.’ What is the incentive to stop?” he said. 

He also expressed his belief that the decriminalization of many drugs across the state isn’t the right answer. While he doesn’t support mass incarceration, he believes that drug abusers need to be held accountable to reduce abuse.

In response to concerns about crime and police reform, the Legislature enacted several “fixes” to the laws, including reestablishing the use of force in some situations. 

Island crime and police reform

The 2021 Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Annual Report showed that violent crime in the state has seen an uptick in recent years, which some attribute to police reform laws. However, the true cause of the increase of crime is unclear, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington. The ACLU argues that the statistics being used precede the reforms of 2021, and simply follow the national trend of increasing crime after the COVID-19 shutdown.

According to the FBI’s crime statistics website, San Juan County reported 228 crimes in 2019, an 8% increase in crime in the past three years. By comparison, crime rates in Seattle, according to a report in the Seattle Times, are up 13%. 

Krebs and Peter don’t see a huge uptick in crimes here. 

But the county isn’t immune to nationwide crime trends, said prosecuting attorney Randall Gaylord: “We don’t have the same numbers but we have the same things happening.” 

Criminal senior deputy prosecutor Teresa Barnett echoed this, noting that the county sees violent crimes, sex crimes, drug crimes, crimes against children, property crimes, identity theft and theft of property. “Over the last several years we’re seeing more violent crime but it’s really difficult to know the cause,” she said. 

Gaylord contends some of this increase is in fact due to police reform laws. “The police are hampered in their ability to apprehend low-level crime,” he said, pointing to the fact that officers can no longer forcibly stop misdemeanors from occurring. 

This can mean that the offender simply walks away without consequence, which, according to Gaylord, encourages others to do the same. Some of the common misdemeanors in the county are small-scale theft, driving under the influence and open use of drugs, often opiates.  To combat increasing crime, Gaylord would like to see a “return to the days of swift consequences for low-level crimes.” 

The sheriff’s race comes during a time of change for the county, which grew over 9% between 2019 and 2022—and during a shift in the community’s demographics. If crime rates continues to creep upward, police may find themselves with some of the challenges of the mainland, for which traditional island policing may no longer apply. 

Still, the community policing methods used and lessons learned in San Juan County may be highly valuable as other communities examine their own practices. Whether this brand of policing can be upheld in a new era may also be an important test. For now, the enduring uniqueness of the islands allows for a different way of policing and, no matter what, according to Krebs, “It takes a village. The islands truly are a village.”

—Reported by Kathryn Wheeler

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