New King County Sheriff Steven Strachan Says Police Contracts Save Money
by Jack Mayne
In an age of diminishing public finances, new King County Sheriff Steven Strachan sees it as the new normal that cities and counties will never return to the flush years of the past.
He says the new future for law enforcement, nationally as well as locally, will be hybrid of agencies contracting with other agencies to supply services at a price cheaper than if an individual government had to pay the costs alone.
Strachan, 47, was appointed sheriff in April when Sheriff Sue Rahr retired to become director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. Strachan was Rahr’s chief deputy for 15 months after being chief of police in Kent for five years. He will face election in November for the year remaining in Rahr’s term.
“I am not sure that this is a economic cycle that we are going through,” he said in a recent interview. “I think the ground may have shifted. In that sense, you have local governments really taking a hard look now at what services they can provide and how you make that financially sustainable over time.”
Local control essential
Local law enforcement has long been driven by local control which Strachan says goes back to Jefferson.
“I think is good. You should be able to call up your local council member or your mayor and say ‘I have a problem with speeders on my street’ and get a good response from the mayor or council member. You (would) have very direct, popular control over that. I think that is a good thing – I like that.
But Strachan says the other side is overhead and administrative costs that go with local control.
“If you look at other areas of the country, their response to that has been that ‘we don’t have as much money, we have to make difficult decisions’ and that is pretty much now what we have in this region.”
He notes that many city and county governments have merged to provide services more cheaply. He cites Las Vegas/Clark County, Nashville/Davidson County (which merged into one government in 1963), Miami/Dade County, and Indianapolis/Marion County have all merged to provide less expensive government.
“They have said to ‘let’s just make one giant, regional government,’” Strachan says.
Merging services often brought great efficiencies, he says, “but you lose a lot of local control.”
At the forefront
“For all of our challenges in King County right now, we are also in the forefront of a hybrid or a very progressive model where there is a balance struck between local control and accountability and an economy of scale,” he says.
“In the contract partnership model that we have with cities like SeaTac and Burien, you have accountability to the local mayor and council, you have local control both economically and, in terms of policy, with an economy of scale in what I would call the ‘back office element’ of our job.
“So the future of the sheriff’s office and, I think, the future of law enforcement is how do we increase those partnerships to create an economy of scale while still maintaining local control – it isn’t an either or,” Strachan says.
Besides SeaTac and Burien, the King County Sheriff’s Department has policing contracts with 10 other cities, plus King County International Airport (Boeing Field), Metro Transit, Sound Transit and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.
“The next phase of this is to look at municipal (police) departments,” he says. “They have local control and they are very good departments, but we all have to ask ourselves both in the sheriff’s department and those (local) departments, what can we can do to partner to continue to reduce our costs that aren’t on the street?” he asks.
He says local small city law enforcement money should be concentrated on “cops on the street, focusing on detectives solving crimes – those things that we really want to focus on.”
“We could discuss partnering on investigations, dispatch, records, supervision, backing each other up, or any other service that has a cost and where working together may save money and make us more effective,” Strachan says.
“It doesn’t mean that the sheriff’s office has to take over, it means we work together to do it cheaper – separation drives up cost.” he says.
In the case of the full police department contract, such as in Burien and SeaTac, the chief makes the day-to-day decisions, involving as necessary the individual city council members, city managers, and city department heads.
But, the chief may also have to involve the sheriff’s office if the question involves shared expenses or if the matter is one that the contract specifies is under control of the sheriff.
“Maybe the timing of a hiring – the city decides that it chooses autonomously to add or subtract staff,” says Major Jim Graddon, who also is the SeaTac Police chief. “Then there is collaboration with the sheriff’s office to figure out the timing because the Sheriff’s office, (under the city’s contract), owns the hiring, training, discipline aspect of the employees. Those are not burdens on the city – the Sheriff’s office owns that.”
Another area beyond a contract city’s control is union wage increases the county negotiates, Graddon said.
“There is a little less direct control, but something (the city) does not have to deal with,” said Strachan, who served as Kent Police chief.
For example, if a police officer must be placed on administrative leave for a period of time, that cost is borne by the Sheriff’s budget.
“If you have a lot of disabilities, maternity leaves or military leave, if you have a department of five or 10 or 20 officers, you own all of that, whereas we are able to mitigate those peaks and valleys,” says Strachan.
Larger cities in the county – Kent, Bellevue, Renton – would not be potential contracts for the county agency, said Strachan, because of their size which already gives them a scale of economy.
Des Moines eyed
But the sheriff says the department will be looking at cities with potential financial difficulties for ways to partner to save everybody money.
“People don’t have to give up local control,” Strachan says. “I have communicated that to a lot of people, including the Des Moines (City Council’s) Public Safety Committee, and said, ‘you have financial issues, we all do, everyone in government does now. So, how can we partner and it doesn’t mean the Sheriff’s office comes in and . . . contracts the entire department. It can be any number of kinds of partnerships. The main thing we have to do is to start talking.
“In Des Moines, they just hired a new chief and they are looking for ways to move forward. Everybody has an open mind and that is the future of law enforcement. That is the future to work together as much as we are comfortable with.”
Strachan says fire departments have regionalized and found economies of scale to cut costs.
“Whatever decisions are made, are going to come from local mayors and councils, and they should,” Strachan says. “It is a matter of degrees. It is not as if the Sheriff’s office comes in or not.”
“I think contract partnerships are the wave of the future, nationally,” he says. “We have a lot in King County now.”
Experience in Minnesota
Strachan has 25 years of law enforcement experience. Strachan served from 2006 to 2011 as chief of police in Kent. Before he came to King County, he was chief of police in Lakeville, Minn. In 1996, he was elected to the first of two terms as a city council member in Farmington, Minn. In 2002, Strachan was elected to the Minnesota State House of Representatives. He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota, and a master’s degree in public administration from Minnesota State University and he is a graduate of the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Seminar.
Strachan says his election campaign will focus on gangs and violence, plus high impact offenders that drive a lot of crime, such as auto theft, burglary and business crime. He says he will be working with the prosecutor on specialized prosecutions, and higher risk victims, specifically juvenile prostitution.
His opponent in November will be John Urquhart, 64, who recently retired as a sergeant and spokesman for the sheriff’s department in September after 23 years.
Photos courtesy Sheriff Strachan’s Facebook Page.