Sheriff Steve Strachan Says Downward Spiral Over, Now Hiring More Deputies
by Jack Mayne
Steve Strachan says the reason he wanted the job of sheriff is because its move into contracting with other cities and agencies is the wave of the future, both in King County and nationally.
He notes that a cut in overtime pay expenses has enabled him to begin hiring new deputies for the first time in a while.
Strachan, 47, was chief of police in Kent when he hired 20 months ago as chief deputy for now retired Sheriff Sue Rahr. Prior to Kent, Strachan was police chief in Lakeville, Minn. He also served two terms on the Farmington, Minn., city council member and a term in the Minnesota State House of Representatives.
He is running for the final year of Rahr’s term, and whomever is elected will have to run in 2013 for a full term. His opponent is retired King County sergeant and public spokesman John Urquhart (read our profile of Urquhart here).
Strachan came to the Seattle area because he and his wife have relatives in the area and because he says they didn’t want to spend their entire lives living near where they grew up.
Dumping the precincts
When asked about his opponent’s charge that he scrapped the department precinct plan in order to fulfill a promise he made to King County Executive Dow Constantine to cut overtime, Strachan demurred.
“I am not going to get into reacting to everything my opponent says. You will see that everything gets characterized by (opponent John Urquhart) a slightly different way than reality. There was no communication with the county executive. It was really based on what our needs were.
“We changed from the precinct plan to the zone plan,” Strachan says. “The zone plan was originally proposed about three years ago by a group of our captains who recognized that the way were deploying our deputies had not been updated for many years and it was one of the reasons that we had, in some cases, more deputies that we need in certain times of the day and not enough in other times of the day. So it was proposed, before I even came here, by our captains who had taken a strategic look at this.”
The change means that all deputies that patrol unincorporated areas would be assigned to zones to be reassigned to specific locations daily as needed due to vacancies from illness, vacation, court attendance or other reasons.
“What it comes down to is that we have lost about 175 positions with all of the (budget) reductions over the past five years. We really never reset, in terms of living within our means so we were staffing much the way we had in unincorporated areas and then just paid a lot of overtime – and the overtime would always be over budget.
“What we had to do was find ways to meet the budget and living within our means,” Strachan says. “We were staffing much the way we always had in unincorporated King County so it resulted in either hiring fewer people and having fewer deputies available – paying overtime and doing layoffs. It was just a spiraling downward.
“So the change was we took the proposal that was made a few years ago and updated it.
“We had a group of about 30 people in the department, including veteran sergeants and people from all over the agency” the sheriff says. “The question was, we don’t want to do it the way we’ve done it. How do we live within our means and do it in a logical way?”
Strachan says the group decided that the change from deputies being assigned to precincts covering unincorporated areas to assigning people to larger zones, allowing supervisors to daily reassign deputies to wherever needed. The new program was implemented this year.
“It is a massive change,” Strachan says. “It has been disruptive for a lot people. It’s been disruptive because it is really different.”
Some adjustments to the plan have been made because of flaws, the sheriff says. One was reducing the manpower in Skyway and White Center from four deputies to three overnight. That didn’t work because they are two different geographic areas and it would take too long for a White Center deputy to backup another in Skyway.
“You can’t have an odd number,” he says. “It is backup for Skyway and it’s backup for White Center.”
But the change is working, he says.
“There have been very substantial overtime savings. There is a reason we are doing this – it isn’t just to save money. The purpose is to reverse that downward spiral to an upward spiral. The fact is we don’t have enough deputies in unincorporated (areas).
“Now, we have shifted into hiring, we weren’t doing that before. Right now, I am hiring 10 to 15 deputies because of overtime savings. There are people in the pipeline right now and many of them will be added into unincorporated.”
Some are concerned that supervising sergeants in the unincorporated areas do not have a shift roll call where deputies can interact with supervisors, and the deputy that will replace them on a specific patrol. Strachan says that will change as the manpower begins to stabilize.
Another thing he wants to change is the length of shifts, now eight hours with no overlap. That will have to wait because it is a bargaining issue with the deputies’ union.
Now that the budget on overtime is stabilizing, Strachan says the next question is what level of level law enforcement is needed in unincorporated areas; what will it cost and how to pay for it?
The sheriff thinks King County Executive Dow Constantine, the County Council and his department need to have a policy discussion on the level of enforcement in the widely different character of various parts of the unincorporated county.
Because of the number of annexations to cities over the past couple of decades, much of unincorporated King County is relatively lightly populated and covers large areas. The county still wants to have areas such as North Highline and Skyway to be annexed to cities, because it does not have the taxing authority to provide city-like services.
Contracting is the future
As far as its contracting services go, he says they are going to increase because that is the wave of the future both here and nationally.
It doesn’t mean the department is going to take over a bunch of police departments, it means that partnering with existing agencies and portions of their required needs – say dispatching or major crime teams, technology, data and records – as a way to leverage resources.
“The sheriff’s office is in a unique position to drive good policy, but it also means we have to be a good partner.” says Strachan. “Coming from the municipal world, we need to be able to trust each other and to trust other agencies that we are starting to partner with. If we get too turf oriented, it is not going anywhere.”
He thinks the partnerships could extend even to the larger police departments, Seattle, Bellevue, Kent.
“Even these big municipal agencies that are doing fine, but what do they have to offer us and what do we have to offer them? It doesn’t mean that we would take things over, it just means we partner with them.”
“If you look at our contract partnership model, what it really creating is local control combined with an economy of scale,” Strachan says. “The next step is for us to start partnering with existing agencies to find other ways to save money. In the public sector, money just continues to shrink.
He says one of the reasons he took the Sheriff’s office job is have the money to focus on cops on the street, detectives solving cases. To do those things, the department must “pay attention to the back office where we are spending a lot of the money. If we can partner in some of these things, we won’t have to cut the number of cops.”
Strachan says a strength he brought to the office of sheriff was his background as a city police chief, a city council member and a state legislator.