Editor’s Note: Staff writer Steve Dunkelberger attended a seven-week University Place Public Safety and Criminal Justice Community Academy class that highlight the issues facing law enforcement officers and communities along the way. Fife is planning a similar program.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor won reelection in November, albeit unopposed, for a position he has held for the last 15 years, surviving a shift from the position of county’s top cop changing from an appointed to an elected position eight years ago.
Alongside his local law enforcement duties, Pastor serves as a national lecturer on police matters, including efforts with the FBI's National Executive Institute and the American Leadership Forum as a senior fellow.
He sees departments across the nation facing shrinking budgets alongside rising criticism about police issues regarding everything from the use of deadly force to racial bias and to the militarization of agencies with the addition of armored personnel carriers and military-grade weapons. Pierce County isn’t immune from those budget struggles or the criticism.
Residents of unincorporated Pierce County pay about $130 per year in taxes to pay for law enforcement, compared to $354 in Tacoma and $290 in Lakewood, for example. A recent study concluded that the sheriff is underfunded by about 80 officers for a department with 35 fewer officers than it had five years ago. But yet all crime victims want their cases solved and the criminals behind bars, while complaining about high taxes.
“I don’t think the public is stepping up to its responsibility,” Pastor said, noting that the county jail has 1,800 beds but only 1,100 of those are filled because the budget won’t allow the department to hire enough correction officers to fully staff. Adding to that is the fact that the jail is the third largest mental health facility in the county with few resources to treat patients who have been arrested for crimes. “If it is worth doing, it is worth paying for.”
The solution is to either lower expectations or increase money for more officers, training and equipment to meet the expectations. Society can’t have both. Too many people are focusing on the rights they are owed without the addressing the larger issue of the responsibility those rights include, according to Pastor.
“Citizenship is not a spectators’ sport,” he said. “You have to get off the sidelines and get into the game. We have a lot of couch potato citizens.”
Officers routinely rush into dark, chaotic, tense and dangerous situations with little information and are required to be polite and by the book every time, as calls are coming in faster and becoming more violent with the increased popularity of guns and the rise of mentally ill people not receiving the services they need.
“It’s not simple stuff,” he said. “We are asked to turn on a dime, and I have to tell you it’s very, very hard to do. That is what we are asked to do, and we will do it imperfectly. We will make mistakes.”
Under those conditions, things will occasionally go wrong, Pastor said. Sometimes fault lies with the police officers, which then unfortunately becomes a rallying cry against all law enforcement agencies.
“Let’s not confuse the universe with the sample,” Pastor said of police misconduct being used to cast shadows of suspicion over the entire profession. “That’s the sample. It’s not the universe of all interactions between police and the community. Most minority people aren’t criminals and most cops aren’t racist killers.”
He admits, however, that there are racist police officers and that should be addressed, but notes that racial bias is a human condition that infects everyone, everywhere.
“That’s not the best part of ourselves, in fact, it is one of the worst parts,” he said. “But it’s a fact.”
The struggle then is to acknowledge everyone’s racial bias and work toward a shared solution rather than relegate the complex, societal issue as just a police concern.
“Black lives don’t matter … enough. We need to be upset that we are losing our kids, particularly minority kids,” Pastor said, noting however, that society also needs to be upset about the rising level of violence against police officers, while still holding law enforcement to high standards. “They don’t have to be inconsistent.”