Improving the public’s communication with the sheriff’s office is a top priority for Major Jerrell Wills, the new Precinct Commander to the North King County’s Sheriff’s Office and longtime Valley resident.
He sat down with the Valley Record to discuss the budget challenges his shrinking agency faces and service goals for his 900-square-mile precinct, which includes 125,000 unincorporated King County residents and the city of North Bend.
Wills, who has lived in Duvall for 11 years, said he’s working to build trust with the community, particularly unincorporated King County.
“As an unincorporated resident myself, I recognize that sometimes we feel disenfranchised from county government, and almost ignored, so I’m really trying to get as involved as I can.”
He’s reaching out to citizens in hopes that they’ll be in touch with his agency.
“People need to call 911 when they see or suspect a problem or they’re victimized. I really get the impression that people are frustrated or they think, ‘They don’t have time.’ As long as our community has that perception, they’re not going to get the service level that they deserve and that they’re paying for,” he said. “You’ve got to call us. We’re not too busy.”
Documenting every incident is key to maintaining service as county budgets shrink, because the sheriff’s office allocates resources based on reports.
“As I try to convince those above me that we need to maintain our service levels out here, they say, ‘Show us the numbers.’ We need the dispatch calls for service.”
Wills’ ability to point to service calls will help keep money and deputies in the area as King County tightens its belt. The Sheriff’s Office is facing a $7- to $10-million budget cut in 2009, which will translate to about 100 fewer deputies countywide. Positions wouldn’t be cut in revenue-backed contract cities like North Bend, but in unincorporated areas where deputies are already spread thin.
“We already feel the pain of not seeing King County Sheriff’s deputies as often as we’d like. On any given shift, we may have five to eight deputies servicing 900 square miles. That’s incredible.”
And it can hurt response times. It currently takes deputies eight to 14 minutes to respond to extreme emergencies. Lower priority calls can take significantly longer.
Despite manpower and budget constraints, Wills aims to improve service in two areas: traffic safety and drug control.
He’s concerned that as the weather warms, Ames Lake will see more inexperienced “weekend warrior” motorcyclists speeding on roads with dangerous curves.
“We know people are getting injured. Our patrol deputies can make an impact on that – making people recognize over time that, ‘Hey, get out in the county and you’re going to see the sheriff on the side of the road.’”
Wills also plans to address the rise of the street drug OxyContin.
“It’s a real problem, so I want to make sure deputies have the tools and the time to conduct those sort of investigations, which are more long-term. You have to get confidence with criminal informants and get close to sellers, and you don’t do that with a uniformed patrol deputy. Our clandestine investigations take time, money and patience.”
Another long-term goal is moving the precinct out of its current Kenmore location and closer to customers. When Wills started working this precinct 20 years ago, Kenmore was central to the service area, but new cities have sprung up since, making unincorporated areas further east, he said.
Wills knew he wanted to be a police officer as a child in Los Angeles and San Jose, despite the tense relationship between law enforcement and citizens there.
“The community perception was, don’t look at police, don’t call them, don’t talk to them. There was a certain disconnect, mistrust, fear and intimidation. But I still respected them, and I still thought, ‘What a great job, serving your community.’”
After following his mother to Tacoma his senior year of high school, Wills earned a degree in society and justice from the University of Washington in 1986. Two years later he was hired by King County, where he feels right at home.
“I love this department,” he said, adding he hopes to bridge any disconnect between it and the community.
“You can always come up to me and say, ‘Hey I have a question. Can I talk to you?’ And the answer is, absolutely.”
• To reach Major Jerrell Wills, call his direct line, (206) 205-7654, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.