By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – For six years, John Gese held the number-two spot at the Kitsap County Sheriff’s office, but after being sworn in on Aug. 30, he moved into the top post — becoming sheriff.
The 30-year law enforcement veteran and Seattle native who has spent his entire police career at the sheriff’s office now controls the purse strings of the office’s $43 million budget and is responsible for a staff of more than 250 people.
As he settles into his new position, Kitsap Daily News interviewed the sheriff about his new job and asked him what he sees transpiring in the days ahead. Gese said priorities for his first year include adjusting to police reforms laid out by lawmakers and sought by members of the community, and filling staff vacancies from personnel leaving the office.
New ways of policing
“We are very sensitive about things that happened with the George Floyd death and all the resulting calls for social justice reform, criminal justice reform. Even here, we saw protests. That had an impact on us. It caused us to stop and rethink how we are doing things and make sure we want to do things in the proper and fair and just way,” Gese noted.
Several police reform laws were recently enacted by the state Legislature. New rules on the use of force, limits on when law enforcement can engage in a vehicle pursuit, and the ability to decertify a police office are some examples he pointed out.
The sheriff’s office and law enforcement agencies across the state now have to adjust their practices to follow the new laws. “We are trying to adapt to the reforms and incorporate [them] into our training, policies and culture,” he said.
That is proving to be easier said than done.
“It’s been a challenge to keep up with all the new laws and make sure we understand the interpretation of them,” he admitted. “So, there is a lot of work going on right now. A lot of analysis of how we do business.”
What now constitutes lawful use of force and when it can be utilized in a variety of situations seems to be an area of concern.
“We don’t fully understand or know some of the perimeters [of when the use of force is permissible]. We are in the same boat as a lot of other agencies and trying to work with the Legislature and attorney general’s office and our own local legislatures to fully understand what the boundaries are in these new laws.”
Prior use of force laws had been the subject of numerous court cases. Decisions from those cases helped interpret the rules, providing law enforcement with guidance as to what constituted lawful police force. The new rules have yet to undergo court review, leaving law enforcement without needed direction, he explained.
“It’s tough for our officers on the street. They want to do the right thing. They don’t want to get in trouble or get charged with a crime. Right now, I think is a feeling-out period. I think we are being slow and cautious.”
Drive through any business district and you are likely to see a string of “Help Wanted” signs in store windows. It is no different at the sheriff’s office. There are currently 25 unfilled positions in the office, which includes deputies, corrections officers and support staff, Gese noted.
“We have been running about a 10% vacancy rate. That’s tough because we have a growing community. The more pressure you have on [staff], unfortunately, the chances of them not staying … gets to be more of an issue.”
The staffing drain has largely involved veteran staff eligible to retire.
“We have a lot of people who have reached that 20-, 25- or 30-year mark who are retiring out of our ranks and that has accelerated at a little bit with all the stuff that’s been going on. Among tenured folks, some of them feel, ‘I think this is a good time to leave.’ But that is something that we expected, looking at the demographics,” he said.
Gese noted his agency is not seeing newer deputies depart. In fact, the department has been hiring a number of officers from other locations who want to work in Kitsap County, he said. Recruiting efforts by the agency have been hampered by the pandemic. Normally, the office would go to job fairs and schools to seek applications, but those avenues were shut down due to COVID regulations.
Once recruiting efforts gear up, Gese said he aims to improve diversity on the force. The office is reaching out to minority faith-based leaders and other prominent minority leaders to promote attract a wider variety of candidates, he said.
Gese’s journey to becoming the county’s new sheriff was not without issue.
Retiring Sheriff Gary Simpson was a Democrat, so Kitsap County Democratic Precinct Committee officers were responsible for pre-screening potential replacements. They then were to make a recommendation to the county commissioners as to who should fill Simpson’s position.
As he was leaving, Simpson endorsed Gese as his replacement. Simpson told the Kitsap Daily News, “[Gese] understands the dynamics and many facets of the sheriff’s office. He is ready to step in and take over the job now.”
After research, the Democratic party officers, however, recommended Sgt. Brandon Myers, another veteran at the sheriff’s office, for the job. In the end, the three Kitsap County Commissioners responsible for making the final call unanimously selected Gese for the position.
The sheriff does not believe the selection process caused any division in the office.
Gese will serve as sheriff for the remaining year and a half of Simpson’s term.
Gese joined the sheriff’s office in 1991, first as a patrol deputy, then a traffic deputy. In 1999, he was promoted to sergeant and worked in internal affairs. After rising to the level of the rank of lieutenant in 2004, he was promoted to chief of patrol. In 2015, he was appointed undersheriff where he worked closely with Simpson for six years and until he was appointed sheriff.
The sheriff attended college at Western Washington University in Bellingham. On his way to earning a degree in sociology, Gese was torn between becoming a social worker or a police office
“I ended up choosing police officer. It was a bit of a non-traditional job. It appealed to me that there was a variety to police work, and you would have contact with all sorts of people.”
While a number of issues confront the sheriff’s office, Gese proudly points out that the citizens his deputies serve largely support his office.
“We are lucky by the fact that we are more connected to the community. Our community is very supportive of us, and I like to think that is because of the reputation that we have built. So, my goal is to not violate that trust and maintain that reputation.
“Are we an agency that the community is proud of and can trust? I think we have been, and I want us to continue to be.”