Deputies need to know backup isn't far away

More than a century ago, in the days of the Wild West, wearing the badge of a deputy sheriff was a dangerous job with a short life expectancy. With help as much as a day’s ride away, a deputy needed to be as tough as the outlaws he faced.

Working alone was a requisite of the job. Despite the passage of time, that can still be true today.

According to the Pierce County Sheriff’s website, about 300 sworn deputies currently serve nearly 400,000 residents in the unincorporated area of the state’s second largest county. Those numbers fall well below the ratio recommended by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, especially significant for a county which ranks second in violent crime for all 39 counties.

This is a safety issue for residents as well as deputies, whose difficult job is made more dangerous when the you-know-what hits the fan and backup is far away.

The sheriff’s department’s staffing shortages seem to be a perpetual problem, and residents (including yours truly) have come to accept it. But it wasn’t always this way.

In 1997, my home was burglarized. Left with no car and virtually no possessions, I gave it up as a lost cause. Then I got a call from a detective from PCSD’s proactive unit. Within two days, these go-getters arrested two career criminals and recovered my possessions while solving several other burglaries.

So why mention this now? Recently, Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor submitted a request for 18 additional deputies to replace staffing cuts made during the Great Recession. While some hires would supplement patrol vacancies, five would be used to form a new burglary suppression unit, an addition that would be a godsend to the 2,000 victims whose burglaries went uninvestigated last year, according to the sheriff.

Enter Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy. In a recent News Tribune story, McCarthy is reported as dismissing Pastor’s request, adding, “The crime rate is down, so he can celebrate that.”

After reading this, I was speechless. To my ears that sounded like, “Let them eat cake.” I continued reading, getting even madder when the sheriff backed off his legitimate request: “I’ll take eight and do the best we can.”

I had to take a few deep breaths before sitting down to write.

To be fair, the current economic picture isn’t pretty, especially with the county jail continuing to hemorrhage money. But public safety is not the largest drain on the county budget for nothing — it is the No. 1 priority.

For too long, county residents served by the overtaxed sheriff’s office have been the poor relations at the end of the table while those living in municipalities, which typically have more than twice the police coverage, sit at the head.

As a patrol officer in Tacoma’s central area during the ’90s, I went to calls knowing that if I needed backup, it was less than a minute away. But if you were to talk to any veteran deputy, I would wager that he or she could tell a story or two about needing help and waiting a long time for the cavalry to arrive. Sometimes that wait can seem like a lifetime. And sometimes it is.

Let’s not spend any time congratulating ourselves on crime stats, which fluctuate over time in ways even experts often don’t understand. Instead, let’s recognize that a commitment to public safety takes far more than lip service.

For the county executive, it means finding ways to say yes (or at least choosing better ways to say no). For the sheriff, it means fighting hard for resources when necessary and engaging the citizenry to help.

I know I would be willing to help. As much as I want better protection for my community, I don’t want deputies to work without better backup. This isn’t the Old West anymore.

Brian O’Neill, a Gig Harbor resident and former South Sound police officer, is a former reader columnist. Email him at btoflyer@comcast.net.