Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders declared a staffing emergency Wednesday, citing persistent vacancies and limited funding.
In a letter to the community, Sanders said his office has been in a "perpetual state of severe staffing issues" for the past three years. To alleviate the pressure, he said he has cut services and moved personnel.
"As employees continue to work dangerously long days with routine overtime, those overtime costs have simultaneously resulted in the regular occurrence of canceled training to stay within budget," Sanders said in the letter. "This has led to a tired, minimally trained workforce."
Sanders attributed the staffing issues to employee sickness and injury, wait times for academy training, pay discrepancies and background investigator constraints. He said the county has 56 funded deputy positions for 150,000 residents, the estimated population in unincorporated Thurston County.
As of Wednesday, Sanders said he had 36 active patrol deputies and seven working detectives. He added his office is actively seeking to fill 11 patrol vacancies and 30 corrections vacancies. The emergency will end once the active patrol deputy count reaches 45 out of the 56 funded positions, Sanders said.
"We are continuing to work with the county to find funding solutions for this issue," Sanders said.
Sanders' decision to declare an emergency came ahead of the Nov. 7 election, when Thurston County voters are expected to decide on a potential solution to his funding concerns.
The ballot will include a proposed "Public Safety Tax," a two-tenths of 1% sales and use tax will primarily serve law enforcement protection purposes.
The county budgeted over $26.3 million in expenditures and 124.49 full-time equivalent positions for the Sheriff's Office law enforcement division in 2023. Money from the new tax could add millions to that budget.
Notably, Sanders fired a corrections deputy for sexual harassment on Monday, The Olympian previously reported. Sanders also fired a civilian employee for sexual harassment on Aug. 31.
Additionally, the Sheriff's Office announced Sanders fired a patrol deputy on Sept. 14. That firing occurred after investigators determined the deputy deceived the office about their background during the hiring process.
What changes has Sanders made?
Sanders said the staffing emergency will temporarily affect schedules for the Field Operations and Support Services bureaus.
He said he chose these measures after holding "a number of meetings" and he expects them to be the "least impactful temporary resolution."
- Lieutenants in the Field Operations Bureau will return to minimum staffing day shift slots as supervisors.
- Captains in the Field Operations and Support Services bureaus will take over a number of administrative duties held by Lieutenants.
- Sergeants will conduct field work as "rover" units that respond to calls and back up deputies when a Lieutenant is on shift.
- Two deputies have been rotated to swing shift.
No employees from the Field Operations Bureau will transfer to the Support Services Bureau during the emergency, Sanders said. This means field deputies cannot become detectives, so three detective vacancies will remain unfilled.
"By withholding the transfer of new detectives, there may also be delays in cases for serious crimes assigned to detectives," Sanders said in the letter.
Sanders also said the public can expect more calls to be handled by phone and referred to online reporting.
He explained Sergeants and Lieutenants may decide to require non-emergency and misdemeanor property crimes to be referred to online reporting during peak call hours.
This move is necessary to ensure enough deputies are available to respond to violent and in-progress calls, he said.
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