Jail, behavioral health, community policing challenge new Whatcom County sheriff - Salish Current
May 16, 2024
Jail, behavioral health, community policing challenge new Whatcom County sheriff
Matt Benoit

A new sheriff after 20 years — Thurston County Superior Court Judge Sharonda Amamilo administered the oath of office to newly elected Whatcom County Sheriff Donnell “Tank” Tanksley in January; Tanksley’s wife, Jessie, pinned on his badge.(Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office)

May 16, 2024
Jail, behavioral health, community policing challenge new Whatcom County sheriff
Matt Benoit


Donnell “Tank” Tanksley is Whatcom’s 38th sheriff — and the first African American in the role.

Donnell “Tank” Tanksley is less than five months into his four-year term as Whatcom County Sheriff, but he’s an increasingly familiar face as a community member.  

When he’s not in uniform, Tanksley said he frequently strikes up conversations in which people tell him he looks familiar. Some eventually realize he’s the new sheriff, and Tanksley is always ready to hand out a business card. 

“Sometimes it does surprise people,” he said. “(But) it’s important, as the sheriff, to be accessible. You have to be able to communicate with people, on just a basic level. Not a level of power, or a level of entitlement.”

Tanksley, 55, took office Jan. 1 when five-term sheriff Bill Elfo retired after foregoing re-election last year. Elfo’s decision paved the way for an election between Tanksley — then Blaine police chief — and former Whatcom County Undersheriff Doug Chadwick. 

Looking back to 1854, Tanksley is the 38th person to be sheriff of Whatcom County and the first African American. 

“It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s not the say-all, be-all,” he said. “I believe that the significance of having a Black sheriff means a lot to people, and not just based upon the color, but based upon what’s possible. What’s possible — not only for people of color — but what’s possible for anyone.”

A path to the PNW

Tanksley lived most of the last decade in Whatcom County after growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. He had a 22-year stint in the U.S. military before embarking on a law enforcement career in 1993. 

His nickname, “Tank,” came about in high school, he said, because there were enough other Donnells to cause confusion. Once he joined the military, the nickname stuck. In St. Louis as a police officer, Tanksley served as a lieutenant in a large metropolitan department. He and his family moved to Whatcom County in 2014, when Tanksley became the assistant chief of police and assistant director of public safety for Western Washington University. 

He left in 2017 to be a police chief for Portland State University, but returned in 2019 to become Blaine’s chief of police — the same position Elfo held before becoming Whatcom County Sheriff.

“My experience working in different facets of policing — in terms of policing, in terms of population, in terms of geography, in terms of mission — has really, I think, suited me well” to do the job of sheriff,” he said.  

First impressions

It’s hard to find much criticism of Tanksley’s first few months in office, especially when compared to his predecessor. 

“Sheriff Elfo was the target of a lot of criticism,” said Stephen Gockley, a member of the county’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF). “Whether or not one thinks it’s justified, it was fairly widespread and fairly vociferously articulated.”

Gockley, who has worked with Tanksley on the IPRTF and the stakeholder advisory board for the new Racial Equity Commission, called him a thoughtful person genuinely interested in hearing other people’s views and incorporating some of them when able. 

Lynden mayor Scott Korthuis, who is a a small-city representative on the IPRTF, said Tanksley made a good impression speaking at a small-city caucus meeting of Whatcom County municipalities. 

Eric Richey, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney, said he found Tanksley to be very collaborative in how he operates with the people and organizations around him. Although the institutional knowledge Elfo carried from being in charge for so long might be considered a loss, Richey said the transition between the two has been solid. 

“It’s always important to have a new set of eyes on how things are done, and I think he’s doing a great job,” Richey said. 

A ‘dungeon-type environment’

Although the department is mostly back to strength on patrol positions, it is still facing a 10-person deficit of corrections deputies, Tanksley said.

Openings spiked in recent years not just because of public pushback against law enforcement, but also because large numbers of senior officers are retiring. The shortage of corrections officers exacerbates concerns over the state of the Whatcom County Jail, which Starck Follis, director of the Whatcom County Public Defender’s Office, described as a ‘dungeon-type environment.’

“It’s just an incredibly dingy and awful place, for both inmates and guards,” he said. 

Besides being insufficient for the county’s current population, the 1984-built jail has virtually no behavioral health infrastructure, Follis added.

“The jail has a legal obligation to provide people with medical treatment that’s needed when they’re booked into the jail,” he said. “You’re not only incarcerating these people, but you are also obligated to take care of them. And that jail just isn’t set up to do that. In my opinion, it was built in a less-enlightened time.”

Follis said the jail was not constructed for “direct supervision,” where a deputy is positioned to directly observe and interact with all the inmates in that space. Monitoring done by camera or hourly walk-throughs, he said, opens up greater chances for victimization among inmates, as well as suicides and drug overdoses. 

A shortage of corrections deputies not only affects supervision, but complicates transporting of inmates to court or for attorney-client meetings, Follis added. There are 27 lawyers in the public defender’s office, and the jail has just one meeting room for face-to-face interactions, he said. 

While little has changed in the jail during Tanksley’s term so far, the new sheriff said that staff are more frequently sanitizing and have also repaired some elevators. And overall, Follis is optimistic about Tanksley’s commitment to building a jail that provides adequate social services, speedy release procedures and reasonable environments for inmates. 

New, better facility

Follis, Tanksley and jail stakeholders in other county departments recently visited a new jail facility near Columbus, Ohio, to see first-hand how new technologies and programming are being incorporated into such facilities. 

Tanksley said the group talked at length with a group of inmates about jail programs that were helping them, or that they hoped would help them in the future. 

Tanksley and Follis also noted social services divisions inside the sheriff’s office there, as well as round-the-clock court clerk services to immediately process bookings, bail postings and referrals to medical and behavioral intervention. 

There were even kidney dialysis stations, Follis said, as well as a “rapid release center” with 24-hour access to coffee, food, clothing and social services for those being released. Follis said several corrections deputies on the trip called the center a “game-changer” that could have very positive applications here.

Peter Frazier, another IPRTF member on the Ohio trip, said he was impressed with the questions he saw Tanksley ask during the jail tour. The new sheriff, he added, has a clear commitment to getting the new jail process right.

That process most recently saw the Bellingham City Council unanimously approve an interlocal agreement and fund creation for the jail levy passed by voters last November. This follows an April 22 letter sent to the county’s seven mayors, detailing how the new jail and behavioral health facility will be paid for in the next four to six years. 

Revenue from the voter-approved 0.2% sales tax will be split 60% to 40% between the county and cities, The Northern Light reported. By 2025, $14 million is expected to be collected, and a total project cost should be known by July 2026. The soonest the jail could open is 2028. 

Planning stages

In the meantime, Tanksley said, the department is considering several adjustments for the current facility. That includes a potential phased easing of current booking restrictions. 

When the jail is too crowded, Follis said, it stops booking misdemeanors other than for DUIs and domestic violence, much to the chagrin of municipal courts which lack their own jails. 

Tanksley said a former corrections chief told him that the jail has been under some level of booking restriction in all but a handful of years since the early 1980s.

Those restrictions have had unintended consequences, he said, including providing criminals with a primer on which offenses are bookable and which are not. Many people then operate accordingly, he added, ignoring citations with the understanding they won’t actually go to jail. This also leads victims of crimes to feel that justice isn’t being properly served. 

Tanksley declined to identify what expanded booking would look like, pending continued careful analysis of how changes would affect the jail, inmates, local court system and overall community. 

He has also discussed a possible “warrant quash day” with the public defender’s office where citizens with outstanding warrants could reschedule court dates without being arrested. 

“I certainly want to give people the opportunity to kind of self-regulate warrants they might already have before we loosen booking restrictions,” Tanksley said. “If we loosen booking restrictions without doing something like that, we’re going to have a whole lot of people in jail.”

Another goal is to ensure his entire office is trained in a 40-hour certification course for crisis intervention, provided locally. Working with the Criminal Justice Training Commission, the sheriff’s department would help to implement a CJTC-certified certification course, taught by a multi-disciplinary team including other community first responders. 

Tanksley also wants the sheriff’s office to return to meeting full accreditation by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police (WASCP). Currently, only two law enforcement agencies in Whatcom County meet full accreditation: the Bellingham and Ferndale police departments.

“The purpose of accreditation is (multi-faceted), but for me it’s to make sure that we’re using the best possible practices within law enforcement and corrections, making sure that — within those practices — our manuals, our rules, our regulations are to the expectation of the community.”

Open communication

After four full months in office, Tanksley said he is receiving more and more requests to speak with local groups. He recently chatted with Western Washington University’s Black Student Union, as well as with Sehome High School students who were part of an after-school program. 

 “A new face in a seat doesn’t automatically enable trust to any group that may have not had the trust in the first place,” he said. “Sometimes it takes time. I think I’m approachable — at least I hope I’m approachable — and I’m willing to have conversations with any group, whether they’re here in Bellingham or in Acme.”

Krystal Rodriguez, a member of the Riveters Collective Justice System Committee, said they have plans to meet with Tanksley in June. 

“We were pleased to see he has plans to pursue accreditation for his staff and the jail,” Rodriguez said. 

Liz Darrow, a member of Community to Community (C2C) — a food justice organization focused on the rights of farm workers — said having a new sheriff is a positive for immigrant communities and persons of color to establish better trust with law enforcement. But broader issues with the local justice system, she said, are unlikely to be radically improved by just one person. 

Darrow — who unsuccessfully ran for Bellingham City Council last year — opposed the jail tax levy, and said that societal issues that align poverty and racism with incarceration are likely to continue regardless of how nice the new jail is for those inside it. 

Gockley agrees that Tanksley can’t change everything by himself. But he said the new sheriff’s lived experience, and leadership in key points where racial disparities exist in the local justice system, will help discussions and planning on how the county moves forward.

“(It) should be encouraging to everyone,” he said, “and will improve our chances of doing better across our differences.”

— By Matt Benoit

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