By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
PORT ORCHARD – Two-term Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson says it is time for “a change of watch” and will be retiring at the end of this month.
In a May 21 email sent to his staff, the 68-year-old Simpson wrote:
“This decision was not hastily made, as we have been working on a transition plan for many months. The goal is to make a smooth transition of leadership in such a way which benefits the citizens we serve, our county, our agency and especially you: the members of our Sheriff’s Office.
“Know you are valued, purposeful and are doing work that is vital and important to the well-being and safety of our families, citizens and nation. I look forward to witnessing your future successes,” he wrote.
Simpson, who joined the Kitsap Sheriff’s Office 36 years ago, sat down with Kitsap Daily News to take a look at his time as sheriff and preview what his next chapter holds.
The sheriff said he is proud of several accomplishments that took place during the six years he has held his elected position, including unifying the department to make it a more cohesive unit and seeking community input on how the sheriff’s office has been performing.
“I think changing our culture and becoming a unified team has been key,” Simpson noted. It was important to get the different divisions and support staff to work together to be successful, he added.
“I kind of look at it like a football team. The quarterback is important, but you also have to have good kickers, a good defense, a good passing team and good medical assistants to deal with injuries. You have to have all of those parts come together to make the team strong and to win.”
Previously, the office was fragmented, he said.
“We weren’t always looking out for each other. To give you an example, the patrol department always felt they were more important than detectives and detectives felt they were more important, while support services staff felt underappreciated for doing all the hard paperwork that we needed.”
In addition to getting the agency’s various elements working together, Simpson is pleased he sought to get input from the public on how the agency should operate.
“We invited the public – whether they were churches, schools, individuals – to do an assessment of our organization and tell us what they thought law enforcement in Kitsap County should be and what they saw our role was in society. We could then focus on meeting those expectations along with the legal expectations that we need to deal with in the criminal justice system,” he said.
Simpson also talked about the challenges the next sheriff will face.
Those include having deputies adjust to legislative revisions that came out of the most recent legislative session. Changes handed down by lawmakers included new guidelines regarding the use of force by officers and how law enforcement is to interact with individuals dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, he said.
“The citizens have spoken to our legislators as to what they want law enforcement to do, through the law enforcement reform acts that have occurred. We are now adjusting to those and preparing our people to respond accordingly,” Simpson said.
“They want us to approach our job differently than in the past. Many of the reforms are appropriate and good for law enforcement and will make us more professional,” the outgoing sheriff said.
Another issue for the next leader: How the sheriff’s office will deal with personnel cuts as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic due to the county’s loss of revenue, he added.
Over his decades of service with the sheriff’s office, it’s fair to say that Simpson has dealt with thousands of citizens. Some of those interactions invariably changed people’s lives.
“We all know we touch people’s lives but we don’t always know when,” Simpson said.
“I was in a store to buy something and somebody said, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’ and I said, ‘No.’ Then, he said, ‘Well you arrested me for DUI.’ I’m like, oh my God, what’s he going to say next? He says, ‘I want to thank you for doing that. You saved my life by doing so.’
“There was another time I received a poem a young lady wrote to me regarding my interactions with her when she was [dealing with depression]. I guess what I did or said to her to show compassion made her believe I saved her life. She wanted to show her appreciation by sending me a poem.
“I still have it and I cherish that very much. It reminds me that all of us in our job [make] an impact on other peoples’ lives and we need to recognize that from time to time.”
Simpson, a Democrat, announced his retirement after the candidate filing deadline for the November election. As a result, his replacement will be appointed by the Kitsap County Commissioners. The commissioners will select the next sheriff from three candidates forwarded by the Kitsap County Democrats.
The appointed sheriff will serve out the balance of Simpson’s term, which ends in late 2022.
Commissioner Rob Gelder said of the retiring Simpson: “I’ve always enjoyed working with him. It was a pleasure. He was the consummate professional.”
Simpson is lobbying for his successor to be John Gese, who has been his undersheriff for the past six years and on the force for more than 30 years.
“I’m hoping he will be selected by the Democratic Party,” Simpson said.
“(Gese) understands the dynamics and many facets of the sheriff’s office. He is ready to step in and take over the job now,” Simpson said.
Once Simpson turns in his badge, he said he happily has no intention of being employed again.
“I’ve been in law enforcement over for 36 years. When I retire, I’m will not be coming back to work. I’m not going to get a job.”
But the soon-to-be-retired sheriff said he will continue working with organizations he has been connected with over the years. He will remain on the advisory boards of Compassionate Friends and the Washington State Insurance Commission, and the Kitsap Mental Health Services board of directors. He also wants to volunteer to do educational work for WASPC (Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs).
Meanwhile, he plans to turn his garage into a workshop and do woodturning. And Simpson and his wife intend to travel.
“We hope to go to Europe on a trip we had to put off due to COVID. We also want to get in our RV and tour the United States,” he said.
Like many retirees, Simpson will have to make some adjustments moving from the stress of law enforcement work to filling his days with leisure activities.
“Everyone keeps telling me that I’ll be busier in the future than I have ever been. I’m hoping that’s not totally true because I’d like to take a break and not have to think about all the things going on worldwide and on a local basis.
“It will be nice to excuse myself from those responsibilities,” he said with a smile.