Jail, staffing, budget are among challenges
Seven months into the job as Okanogan County Sheriff, Paul Budrow said morale is up, most positions are filled, and he’s starting to have fun.
Budrow was elected as sheriff after 11 years as Twisp’s police chief and decades of experience as chief and an instructor for larger police agencies. When he took office in January, there was so much to be done at the county, “it was like a fire hydrant to the face” for the first month or so, Budrow said. Then, drawing on his experience leading other agencies, he started tackling issues in small bites, he said.
Budrow ran on a platform of reforming the jail, hiring more officers, beefing up resources and training, and boosting morale. Although he’s made strides in all areas, the issues are complex, and some have proven to be more intractable than he’d anticipated.
With dedicated officers feeling they didn’t have the tools to do their job, morale was low, Budrow said. Officers felt ineffectual if they couldn’t take someone to jail, and victims felt victimized twice. Offenders believed there were no consequences for their actions, he said.
“Now we’re getting a lot done, morale is up, and we’re putting bad guys back in jail,” Budrow said.
Beyond county’s control
Many of the factors contributing to low morale were beyond the control of the Sheriff’s Office or former sheriff Tony Hawley, Budrow said.
A combination of state laws and COVID restrictions made it especially difficult to incarcerate people for anything but the most serious crimes. Because of COVID, there were limits on jail occupancy and strict requirements for booking, with new inmates quarantined for 10 days. Meanwhile, drug use and related crimes increased during the pandemic. It was a tough spot for the previous administration, Budrow said.
Another contributing factor was a 2021 state law that made it unlawful to arrest someone for simple possession of a controlled substance unless officers could prove the person knew it was unlawful to possess the drugs.
“It was a great idea, but it backfired,” Budrow said. Drug use increased, but no one was getting help — all they got was a card with a list of resources, he said.
Dependence on drugs is a disease, and people need help and don’t belong in jail, Budrow said. Nevertheless, incarceration was the only way to get them into the system for help, he said.
Incarceration can also be an incentive to get someone to cooperate as a confidential informant, allowing law enforcement to go after bigger dealers, Budrow said.
For many people, jail was safer than being on the street — it provided a place to reflect, get off drugs, and work with mental health counselors, Budrow said. The jail connects drug offenders with recovery navigators, who have a lived history of substance-abuse disorder and who support people during incarceration as well as after they’re released.
Legislation passed this year has given law enforcement more tools to address the drug problem, Budrow said. Now, it’s a gross misdemeanor to knowingly possess controlled substances or to use them in a public place.
Charges for simple possession carry a jail sentence or a fine, which is suspended as long as the person is involved in treatment and other pre-trial diversion programs. Those who don’t comply with the treatment and diversion programs will be incarcerated.
The state is transitioning to the new law. Officers can now issue a warning for drug possession and confiscate the drugs. Starting Aug. 15, officers can arrest and cite people and get them into the system, Budrow said.
Okanogan County’s biggest crime problems, by far, are drugs and theft — and 95% of thefts are connected to illegal drugs, Budrow said. Although this is a long-standing trend in the county, it’s gotten worse in the past three years, he said.
Seeing the Sheriff’s Office from the inside revealed the challenges of the job. Budrow had hoped to recruit former colleagues from other parts of the state, but they would have had to take a substantial pay cut and lose benefits and health coverage for their families, and many couldn’t make the change, he said.
One of Budrow’s current goals is to persuade the county commissioners to invest in law enforcement and to increase the budget for salaries and benefits for the Sheriff’s Office.
Many of these challenges have roots outside Okanogan County. It can be hard to find a spot in the police academy to train new officers. Washington has the lowest ratio in the country of police officers to population, Budrow said.
Budrow said he and the entire Sheriff’s Office have benefitted from skilled officers to whom he can delegate responsibilities, such as Undersheriff Dave Yarnell and Chief Criminal Deputy Rick Balam (also a former Twisp police chief), who handles grants, administrative matters, and search and rescue.
Although staffing is up, the Sheriff’s Office still has just two detectives, too few to investigate cases properly, particularly with the type and sophistication of crimes in Okanogan County. Instead, patrol officers are doing investigations while trying to handle calls, Budrow said.
Although the Sheriff’s Office has hired more people for the jail — including some former employees who’ve come back — they’re still looking for half a dozen corrections officers, out of a staff of more than 30, Budrow said.
Early in his tenure, Budrow faced backlash from people who’d expected him to make good on his campaign promise to fully open the jail. But without complete staffing and with COVID restrictions still in place, they had to keep the numbers low, he said. Today they can take about 90 inmates, up from 75 when he started, Budrow said.
Getting to know the community
When he was Twisp’s police chief, Budrow was a regular presence at eateries around Twisp and a regular at lunch tables in the school cafeteria. He urges his patrol officers to get to know people in their communities by having coffee and interacting in everyday situations. “You don’t want to show up [respond to a call], where we’re police and we’re scary. If we build relationships, people will talk to us,” Budrow said.
That’s not the traditional approach to policing — officers typically drive around in a police car and are visible at a distance — but Budrow encourages his officers to be less guarded.
Lots of officers are assigned to specific communities, since many towns in the county contract with the Sheriff’s Office for coverage. Some have officers based in town, and others — like Twisp — just get a response when they need a deputy.
Hawley, Budrow’s predecessor, is working as a sergeant and a field training officer for the Sheriff’s Office. “He’s a phenomenal patrolman,” Budrow said.