Sheriff looks at key issues heading into new year

With the start of a new year, Kitsap County Sheriff John Gese is looking at central issues in his department — from crime trends and staffing challenges to wellness and budgeting, including a possible new sales tax to help fund his office.

Gese, who has put in 31 years in the office he now runs, was appointed sheriff in August of 2021 following the retirement of Gary Simpson. In November, he was elected to a four-year term.

Crime trends

“We have seen some crime trends go up here,” Gese said, such as car thefts and certain retail thefts on the rise. “Auto thefts is one you are hearing a lot about,” he said. In 2020, there were 261 car thefts, but that jumped to 548 this year.

To reduce such thefts, the sheriff’s office is targeting repeat offenders. “This has had a dramatic impact on the number of auto thefts. Such thefts were sky-high this past year. Now we are starting to see them moderate a little bit,” Gese said.

To nab prolific car thieves the sheriff’s office is coordinating more with other police departments and placing added emphasis on processing recovered stolen cars for fingerprints, the 62-year-old sheriff reported.

Organized retail theft is another criminal activity on the rise. “By organized I mean a group of people that come in and steal hundreds or thousands of dollars from a store or a couple of stores. These kinds of criminals, they don’t tend to be homegrown. They tend to come in from out of the county. Their sole purpose is to steal high-value items and get out of the area as quickly as possible,” Gese said.

Items often sought include power tools and cosmetic items, such as premium perfumes, he added. Since 2020, the number of such incidents climbed from 15 to 37.

Several stores have a policy that unless a thief voluntarily stops when confronted, employees are not to physically stop them out of liability and safety concerns, Gese noted. Since police are typically not nearby the thieves frequently getaway.

The sheriff’s office has drawn up a new line of attack to catch shoplifters. The tactic started this holiday season. “We are going to do some targeting emphasis where we work with the stores. If they see people stealing, while it’s happening, we want to be right there to meet them and catch them.”

The sheriff did not want to reveal details but did say, “Part of what we are talking about is to have the loss prevention people online ready to go and have us available nearby. Hopefully, we can be right there and respond before [suspects] run away and take these folks to jail.”

Possible new tax

The sheriff’s department has a $50 million budget that takes up a big portion of the county budget, Gese noted, adding they are responsible for policing for about 170,000 residents — everywhere from Hansville and Kingston to Seabeck and Silverdale to Port Orchard and Olalla.

The population has grown nearly 10 percent between 2010 and 2020, Gese said, adding that has put strain on the sheriff’s office. “We have been struggling a little bit trying to keep up.”

Washington state ranks last in officers per 1,000 population nationwide, Gese said. On top of that, the sheriff’s office usually is in the bottom 10 of police agencies in the Evergreen State for officers per population. He said the department has about 0.67 officers per 1,000 of population. A lot of cities have at least one per 1,000 or higher.

Keeping pace with growth concerns the sheriff. “I want to meet the demand and expectation of our community. I just worry that we are having a struggle trying to keep up with that.

“I believe we could use more deputies and detectives. If our jail population increases, we are going to need more corrections officers,” he said.

Gese sought funding for an additional 13 positions in 2023. “I am not going to get them. That is probably due to the size of our budget already and also because of concerns about a possible recession.”

With funding tight, Gese indicated it’s time to look for additional funding — possibly a new county sales tax. “There could be up to a three-tenths of a percent sales tax passed to support criminal justice functions,” Gese said. “A lot of communities have gone that way. That would be something that next year I would really like to explore.”

Such a tax could generate $6.8 million annually, Gese estimated. The sheriff expressed interest in setting up an exploratory committee to look into the tax and working with county commissioners to survey citizens on the revenue idea.

Staffing issues

Like many businesses, the sheriff’s office has put a “Help Wanted” sign in the window. Even though the department hired 40 people in the last year, some positions remain unfilled. Of the department’s 268 positions 5 percent are vacant. The office is without four deputies and approximately nine corrections officers in the jail. Earlier this year, staffing was down even more with 35 positions open.

“We have seen a lot of retirements. We hired a lot of people in the 1990s, and those folks are now hitting retirement age. People like me, who came on 25-30 years ago, are retiring. You are also seeing some people retire early after 20 years. Then there are some that are just leaving the profession — maybe they found it just wasn’t for them,” he said.

On a positive note, Gese said he has not lost deputies to other police departments for a few years. But “we have hired people from other agencies. We are drawing people because they like our organization and the community.”

To address the employment shortage, the department has turned to electronic platforms like Indeed. The office also sends representatives to job fairs in communities and at military facilities. They have also recruited at Olympic College, Central Washington University and Western Washington University.

Offering competitive pay is key. “This is needed because if someone is interested in getting into law enforcement there are so many opportunities right now,” Gese said.

Hiring bonuses are being used — $25,000 for experienced officers and $10,000 for entry-level. Current officers were given a $10,000 retention bonus for agreeing to remain on the force for at least two more years.

Wellness efforts

Administrators also are taking steps to look after the well-being of those wearing a badge. Looking after the well-being of staff — both in terms of medical and mental health — is a relatively new focus of the office.

“Thirty years ago, the culture in law enforcement was you wouldn’t come forward to say you need help because you were suffering or going through some emotional distress. Nobody really felt comfortable doing it. Now there is a tremendous push to reverse that culture,” Gese said.

“We have done a lot in the last few years to create a culture where if people are worried about someone else, or themselves, they can come forward. We can help them get help and take care of them.

“I was just at a conference where I heard some pretty startling statistics. One in four police officers or deputy positions could have very likely have post-traumatic stress going on. For corrections, it’s even higher — one in three,” Gese reported.

To help officers gauge their overall health the department started providing advanced medical screenings and wellness checks. The screenings can pinpoint areas that may need attention, such as pre-diabetes or a need to lose weight.

Regarding mental health, officers have been provided a “Wellness” app that provides employees with a resource library of health and wellness materials.

For example, if an officer is feeling down, he or she can open the app and take a confidential self-survey to screen for depression. “They can use these tools in the privacy of their home. It’s strictly confidential,” Gese noted.

To keep up on advancements in employee wellness the department established a “wellness committee.” The in-house group is tasked with assisting management to determine ways to support personnel. “We ask them to be our ‘boots on the ground’ and let us know what kind of concerns and challenges are out there and help us strategize on how we can address them,” the sheriff said.