Office of Jani Hitchen, Pierce County Council, District 6 story.
Last week I had the opportunity to get some firsthand experiences as to how the men and women that work for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department does the work on behalf of our county. It is not just the deputies in the cars with lights and sirens, but also corrections officers that oversee those who are brought into our jails. I also learned about some of the new technology and why we continue to have delays in response. It truly was eye opening.
Visiting our Jails
I had planned to tour our jails (two buildings) in 2021, but due to Covid and some scheduling challenges, it didn’t happen. On Tuesday of last week, I was able to finally get in the “doors” to see what it is like. I will bluntly say, I do not want to ever spend the night in jail. While not really what is portrayed on TV or movies, our two different styles of jail set-ups are not a happy place. Which is the point. It is supposed to be a deterrent, not a vacation.
The older jail is more like what you imagine, with pods of cells, each with a bed, toilet, and sink. Not much room, no TV or personal items. Just space to sleep, change clothes and do your business. There are some outdoor spaces, but all within cement walls, and those in this section tend to be kept in smaller groups or separated due to the severity of their crimes OR their behavior in group settings.
The new jail in essence has very little to no privacy. It is more open concept where inmates have bunk beds lined up against the wall and in a row. To me it looked like military barracks. They had recreation space, a TV room and space to eat together. The newer jail is used for housing people that are awaiting trials for lower-level offenses and can share space with others.
Upon entering the jail within the booking area, they are screened medically first, to make sure they do not need care right away or have underlying health conditions or concerns that the medical team at the jail should be aware. They have rooms for phone calls, meeting with legal advocates and even seeing counselors or mental health professionals.
Ride-Along with Sgt. Moss
Who goes into the jail you might ask? Well on Friday night, I was able to join Sergeant Darren Moss of the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department for a ride along and saw one person arrested. But that wasn’t how the night started, so we will come back around to that.
I joined Sgt. Moss at the Parkland Sub-station and we spent a few minutes looking over the workstation he had mounted in his car. This is one of the ways we make things more efficient for our officers. We were able to see all the pending calls in most of the county. He could filter by location, jurisdiction, or even types. Because there had been a major incident in Parkland a couple hours earlier, several deputies were in the parking lot writing up reports and uploading body camera footage when I arrived to start my ride-along. Things I noticed about this system:
- Allows officers to know in REAL-TIME what type of call it is, who is responding, any threats, the level of concern they should use when approaching and if they need to wait for back-up.
- Allows officers from all jurisdictions to know who is showing up, for instance, a call came in for an area in a small section of unincorporated Pierce County between Lakewood and Steilacoom. Lakewood PD was responding, but our deputies could track as things progressed, so when they arrived, they had the most up-to-date info and could prioritize if they were needed.
- Allows South Sound 911 to update information as new details come in if other callers reach out.
- Allows the officers responding to update others in the area if there is something that needs to be done, or if other resources are needed, like fire or EMT.
- Allows for details to be captured and then used when they go back to complete reports. These are then used for detailing court cases and booking information if there is an arrest, or a court case in the future.
- Allows communication for request for additional services, like our fantastic Co-Responder program.
During my ride along I was able to witness several different types of calls. The first one was a car accident. First on the scene was Deputy Davis, and she had arrived to take the report, assess if anyone was at fault and if anyone was impaired. Her SUV was in the center lane with lights on, so drivers approaching the scene knew to be cautious. She had already determined that there were no charges or tickets to be issued and waited for the tow truck. Using her car to continue to provide protection and warning to other drivers.
The next stop was by Sgt. Moss for a traffic violation. While not typically one of his duties as the Information Officer for the county, he noticed that the plate for the car in front of us was so dark and not readable at all. He turned on his light, and the person driving signaled that he was moving over and then pulled into an apartment parking lot. Sgt. Moss shared with me several thoughts while going through the process.
He quickly assessed while speaking with the person in the car that he did not appear to be impaired, nor was he confrontational. He ran the information on his station and was able to see the details of the persons past interactions with our legal system. He was able to put in the computer that he let him go with a warning about fixing the cover over his plate that impaired the visibility of the plate and explained why it was important.
While driving away I mentioned that there had been a vehicle that I noticed in Parkland, and that it had been there for at least 2 days in the same spot. We drove to the location of the truck; he ran the plates and pulled the info on the owner. Sgt. Moss called the owner who told him, “I’m looking at my truck right now.” So, Sgt. Moss asked him to check his plates. Come to find out the truck we were looking at had been stolen from a home in Puyallup and the plates were stolen from a truck in Tacoma.
Sgt. Moss was able to contact both victims and the truck along with the plates, were returned to their rightful owners. Felt pretty good to solve a crime, and while the truck will need some TLC, at least the owner has it back and can start the process with his insurance company.
It was starting to get dark and things were getting busier. I was able to witness a couple of deputies dealing with some youth that were not making good choices about driving in the Parkland area, and then we all took off to a fight that involved at least one person allegedly throwing rocks. Upon arrival it, was apparent that something had happened, and a young man was high, and not making a lot of sense.
While he did not appear to be injured, the officers continued to try and assess his condition and if he was a danger to himself or others. He refused help and insisted he just wanted to be left alone. The others involved didn’t have a lot to say, so we left the scene to attend to another call nearby. This time it was a domestic violence call. Along with Sgt. Moss, we had Deputies Cargill, Calderwood and Beddo that were on site at an apartment complex in Spanaway. Some neighbors pointed us to the correct building, and it was apparent that some sort of fight had happened between the couple.
For those that might not be aware, we have a law in the state of Washington that requires officers to take one of the two involved to jail in domestic violence calls. This is because too often the offender can intimidate the victim after the fact if law enforcement does respond but does not detain. The goal of this law is to give the victim time. In this case all the deputies on site were trying to determine who was the victim. They calmly spoke with both people and then based on what was reported took one into custody; but they listened calmly and asked questions to make sure they had as much information before deciding.
New Tech Making a Difference
One last thing I want to point out was I had the chance to see some of the body camera footage from one of the incidents that had happened earlier. Along with some footage from other cases. The system requires any officer that accesses footage to log that they are doing so and why. It was fascinating to watch the same situation from a couple of angles, and truly allows officers to show how they are doing their work. While it was an expensive investment, I think they bring a level of transparency to the public but also for our officers.
The technology has certainly changed, and I learned a ton about evidence collection, processes and how officers are dispatched. Our deputies really do spend much of their time trying to engage with community that are often having a really bad day. They spend a lot of time filing paperwork, though thankfully can do that from their cars so they don’t have to drive all the way back into a station. And they have very specific guidelines about how many officers need to report to incidents. At one point there were 53 calls pending.
Pending Calls and Delayed Response
This means there were 53 calls into 911 that an officer was requested to attend to. They were listed and prioritized by the South Sound 911 dispatcher. If they required more than one officer, it was noted. If it needed a co-responder, it was listed. Due to the safety of our officers and the community, some calls sat for quite a while. When we have a shortage of officers, which we do right now, they cannot be everywhere. Our county is huge, and so many of the calls were welfare checks, or calling for what was more a social service call. But they do the best they can, with the staff they have.
Thank you so much to Acting Corrections Chief Jones for the tour and answering all my questions. Thank you to Sgt. Moss for letting me ride along and see our deputies in action and showing me the ins and outs of their work.
I continue to think about ways to improve the system, make sure we are doing all we can to expand access to Co-Responders and social services so that our deputies are doing the work they trained for. I want to make sure that the hard-working law enforcement officers on the streets and in our jails are safe AND we want to make sure that we are looking to our systems to make sure we are doing all we can to keep the public safe. More work to be done by the county and the Council, but truly appreciated the view through the lens of those doing the work each every day.
Read all of Jani Hitchen’s prior posts at The Hitchen Post.