SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Whenever a Sedro-Woolley police officer needs to transport a person under arrest or more than one call comes in at a time, a strain is put on the Sedro-Woolley Police Department.
Such situations force another officer — usually a sergeant, the department’s lieutenant or even its chief — to take to the streets as the only officer on patrol.
It’s a situation that happens more often than not, Sedro-Woolley Police Chief Lin Tucker said.
“People think there’s three, four, five officers on the street,” Tucker said. “Most of the time, there’s only one on the street.”
Including himself and a lieutenant, the department has 17 officers, Tucker said. While that number may have worked well in the past, the city — and the number of calls officers respond to — has grown.
“Sedro-Woolley is not a small town anymore,” Tucker said.
To address the department’s staffing issues, the city is asking voters to decide Nov. 5 on a property tax increase that would allow the department to hire more officers and address its overwhelmed administrative staff.
Proposition No. 1 asks voters to allow the city to raise the property tax levy-lid by 56 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value, which would bring in an estimated $557,706 extra each year.
The increased revenue would allow the department to hire three additional officers, to make a part-time records position full time and to partner with the Sedro-Woolley School District to hire a school resource officer.
That resource officer position is one the department has been looking for ways to fill for years, state Sen. Keith Wagoner, a former Sedro-Woolley mayor, said at a public meeting Wednesday.
“It’s an investment in our kids’ future and it’s an investment in our community,” he said.
The Anacortes and Mount Vernon police departments have school resource officers whose positions are funded with a combination of city and school district dollars. The Skagit County Sheriff’s Office is also making an effort to get deputies into schools, with participating school districts paying a portion of the costs.
Ideally, a school resource officer in Sedro-Woolley would be able to connect with students to handle not only small problems, but to identify issues before they escalate.
The officer would also be able to address security needs at the high school, including possible active shooter situations.
“We are not teachers,” Tucker said. “School teachers aren’t cops. And they aren’t the shield between the bad guys. We are. Every bullet a bad guy shoots at us is a bullet that isn’t shot at a kid.”
During summers, the school resource officer would help cover shifts for other officers, Tucker said. And in an emergency that occurs off campus during the school year, the officer would be one more body available to the department.
“It will give us a little bit of breathing room for our patrol officers,” Tucker said.
With current staffing, if an officer needs to spend a prolonged amount of time on one call — including transporting a person under arrest to the Skagit County Community Justice Center in Mount Vernon — someone else, often a supervisor, has to step in.
That leaves less time for that supervisor to do their job, Tucker said.
“Very seldom do I get to work as a patrol sergeant,” said Sgt. Paul Eaton, who spoke at the public meeting as a proponent of the tax increase.
The staffing shortfall is such that the department spends about $100,000 a year on overtime, he said.
With its community approach to policing, Eaton said, the department has been able to make strides in addressing problems and supporting the community.
That, he said, is because of the officers’ dedication to their jobs and in spite of the challenges brought about by the staffing issues.
“The burden’s getting worse,” Eaton said. “But we’re willing to give a little more to give the service that I, as a citizen, expect. And that I, as a police officer, expect to give.”
When an officer goes on vacation or gets injured, other officers have to step in, Tucker said. Officers, he said, are getting called in early, asked to stay late, and asked to come in on their days off.
More and more, they are beginning to feel burned out, he said.
“The most valuable thing that we own as a police department are our people,” Tucker said. “They are our most valuable assets. We’ve been supported and that’s the only way we’ve been able to be successful for so long. We’ve been successful, but we’re wearing people out.”
Increasing the records position to full time would allow the department to better keep up with records requests as well fulfill additional duties brought about by the state Legislature and voter initiatives.
Six of the city’s seven City Council members voiced their support Wednesday for the tax increase. Councilman Chuck Owen was absent from the meeting.
“We don’t want to go backwards in the great strides they’ve already made in making our city safer,” Councilwoman Brenda Kinzer said. “It’s absolutely necessary. They take care of us and we really need to take care of them.”