Sunday, June 18, 2017
[Humboldt County] Grand jury: rural communities underserved by law enforcement
Humboldt County’s Civil Grand Jury recommended in its latest report Friday that the Board of Supervisors increase funding for the sheriff’s office to improve coverage of “seriously underserved” rural communities.
“Residents have reported to the [grand jury] that crime continues unabated because those committing these crimes are empowered by the perception that law enforcement will not respond when called,” the grand jury report states.
The grand jury is calling on the board to find a permanent funding solution for the sheriff’s office to replace Measure Z sales tax revenue, but does not specify where the funding should come from. Measure Z is set to expire in 2020 if voters do not reinstate the tax beforehand.
The report also calls on the sheriff’s office to improve hiring procedures, conduct a review of response times to emergency calls, purchase modern communications equipment and improve communications and relationships with tribal police agencies in rural areas.
The grand jury commended the sheriff’s office for filling 30 vacant positions, hiring resident deputies for outlying communities, reopening its Garberville and Willow Creek substations and creating a crime tip line for eastern communities. Most of these improvements were the result of Measure Z funding, the grand jury states.
Sheriff William Honsal agreed that finding qualified candidates has been a “huge problem” not just for his office, but for law enforcement agencies throughout the state. However, Honsal said nine recruits have just graduated from the local police academy and will be able to be on the street by October while continuing their field training.
However, he stated that the sheriff’s office remains centralized out of Eureka and McKinleyville and has to cover a county of about 4,000 square miles, which can result in some longer response times for areas like Shelter Cove.
“Especially when it’s a violent crime, we’ll get there as fast as we can, but sometimes it’s going to take awhile,” Honsal said. “We have to prioritize calls. We value life over property.”
The county sheriff’s office and Board of Supervisors are required to formally respond to the grand jury’s recommendations within 60 days.
Board Chairwoman and 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass said Friday afternoon that she looks forward to reading the grand jury report over the weekend.
County voters passed the half-cent sales tax Measure Z in 2014, which was campaigned as a way to improve public safety services that had been crippled by the 2008 recession.
The measure was a response to an outcry by rural communities in southern and northern Humboldt County that grew alarmed that sheriff’s office response times to 911 calls were taking up to an hour-and-a-half. The majority of the tax revenue now goes to the sheriff’s office, with the office having received about $8 million since 2015 for new hires and equipment.
The grand jury said it began its investigation after receiving a complaint in August 2016 alleged that citizens in eastern Humboldt County still are unable to get law enforcement to respond and that they “continue to live in fear, not only of criminal behavior, but also of retaliation and intimidation from reporting such crimes.”
While the sheriff’s office has reinstated its memorandum of understanding with Hoopa Valley Tribal Police to cross-deputize its tribal police officers and opened up a Willow Creek substation, the grand jury states residents in these rural areas often do not have cell service, which can also pose a problem for deputies.
The grand jury is calling on the sheriff’s office to purchase satellite phones to ensure it is able to respond to emergency calls.
Honsal said the sheriff’s office will be purchasing five satellite phones at the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, two of which will be going to their outlying stations and the remaining three going to their search and rescue team, emergency operations division and command van. But at the price of $4,000, satellite phones will not be in the hands of every deputy, Honsal said.
The sheriff’s office has also requested funds from the board for the upcoming 2017-18 fiscal year to complete a study that seeks to improve radio communications in outlying areas.
While Measure Z is able to provide funds for new deputies, it does not mean that those positions will be filled. The grand jury found that hiring candidates for deputy positions is a “long and cumbersome process” that can take over a year to complete due to rigorous state requirements, extensive background checks, psychological tests and examinations.
At a Bridgeville community meeting last summer, then-Sheriff Mike Downey said his department’s hiring issues were not due to funding, but rather due to too few candidates being able to pass drug tests. Honsal said these issues still hold true today.
The grand jury states that new hires who have no experience must complete 23 weeks of courses at a police academy and then undergo an 18-month field training process.
The county also experiences a high turnover rate of deputies, which the grand jury states is not uncommon for smaller counties that pay lower salaries. Honsal agreed that it is difficult to retain deputies when other counties like Sonoma and Sacramento pay higher salaries.
With the nine new academy recruits coming on board, Honsal said the sheriff’s office will be five positions away from being fully staffed.
Honsal that he has been communicating well with the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes concerning cross-deputization of their police forces, but stated tribal police forces are also experiencing staff recruitment issues. Honsal said he is planning to attend a community meeting in Hoopa on Monday.
June 16, 2017
Eureka Times Standard
By Will Houston