Shift’s Newsmaker Interview is with Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney, who spoke directly about the failure of the Democrat controlled legislature to fix the serious public safety problems liberal politicians previous created.
After spending 23 years in the department, Fortney was elected Sheriff in 2019 by defeating the incumbent Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary with 55.4% of the vote. Sheriff Fortney has been an outspoken critic of the many soft on crime measures proposed and passed in the state legislature and by some liberal Western Washington local governments. He has faced four frivolous recall efforts by disgruntled opponents, yet each has failed either due to court rulings or from the lack of necessary recall petition signatures. The Sheriff has announced that he will seek re-election this year.
In his interview, Sheriff Forney provided in-depth replies to questions on public safety issues. He explained why his office produced a highly viewed video last year which included many bi-partisan local officials asking state lawmakers to reverse some of the 2021 anti-police legislation passed by the Democrats. He shared his disappointment with the 2023 legislature failure to make meaningful reforms on state police pursuit laws, and thus suspected criminals will still be able to flee from police questioning. The sheriff was also critical of Olympia lawmakers for failing to pass a strict drug possession law which encourages addicts to obtain treatment. He explained his innovative “Lead The Way” program which seeks to steer teenagers away from a criminal pathway. Finally, Sheriff Fortney explained his support for deputies to wear bodycams and what his department is doing to recruit and retain trained officers.
Last Fall your office produced a well-received video in which a number of local officials called for public safety measures to be implemented to make communities in Washington State safer. Why did you feel this video needed to be made? What has been the reaction to the video in Snohomish County?
The reason I put together a bipartisan group of elected leaders and police leaders to make a strong public safety video message is because the message deserved to be communicated in a clear, concise and non-divisive way to the public. Simply put, the message wasn’t getting out. I am out in our community all of the time talking to groups and in doing so, I would always get asked about the status of public safety in our state. I would be asked, “Are drugs really legal?”, “Are you really not able to pursue suspects that have just committed a felony?” and all of these conversations would inevitably lead to the question of “Why are criminals so brazen right now?”
So I decided to put a video together to show the community exactly what we were facing. It took several months to get a final product together, but it was definitely worth the effort. When talking about the video I have to point out that Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin participated in the video. After initially telling me no, I ran into her at coffee several weeks later, asked her to participate in the filming and if she didn’t like the final product, she would be edited out. I give her a considerable amount of credit for making this decision and standing by it even after incredible pressure from her political party not to. It was the right thing to do.
When I initially unveiled this video to over 100 people in Marysville and prior to it being public, the video received a standing ovation. I think that is the overwhelming response when I show this video to public audiences. I also showed this video to the Washington State Sheriff’s Association where it also received an ovation and several of the sheriffs shared the video with their constituents. It has now been shared around 5000 times and viewed over one million times. It needed to be said!
Going into the 2023 Legislative Session, it appeared that enough Democrats were willing to side with Republican lawmakers to pass a much needed reform of the state’s police pursuit laws. Yet in the end, the far Left controlled the legislature and passed what many people regarded as a watered-down version (SB 5352). What are your thoughts on what was passed and what additional reforms would you support?
So I have a little different opinion than most on this topic. While what they came up with was an incremental improvement and I’ll take it, it will not change a thing in the State of Washington. This is one of those areas where I think our elected leaders in Olympia are so out of touch with most every-day Americans in our community. I am tired of heaping praise on our political leaders for their perceived correction to a problem they created in the first place! They did not fix the pursuit issue. They do not deserve praise. I don’t mean that to sound harsh, but this issue has caused so many problems in our community and is the main reasons criminals are emboldened in the State of Washington. A criminal suspect that is able to make it to a vehicle, still has a “free pass” to drive away from law enforcement. A civilized society cannot function like this unless they are willing to accept an emboldened criminal element and I am not willing to accept that. I truly don’t understand why this is controversial.
This approach to vehicle pursuits was attempted by elected leaders in New Jersey. They banned police pursuits and then shockingly (sarcasm), vehicle thefts skyrocketed in the state, as did other crime. Even in the state of New Jersey, they had the political wherewithal to go back into session and rescind the pursuit law because of the increase in crime directly related to inability to chase the criminal element. For whatever reason, we can’t seem to get this right in Washington.
For the record, even with the “fix” passed by the legislature, a crook can still punch a police officer in the face, get to a vehicle and drive away and it is against the law to pursue this suspect.
For the record, a suspect can break into your house, steal your stuff, put your stuff in his car, and then simply drive away from the police. It is against the law for the police to pursue this suspect.
One more example….if the police find a felon in possession of a firearm (those most likely to commit violent crime in society) and they make it to a car or are already in a car, they can simply drive away from the police.
These are merely three examples each of which is a felony in progress. None of these are in-line with keeping the community safe and by telling the criminal element ahead of time that we can’t pursue them for most crimes, we embolden the criminal element to commit more crime against society. This is not rocket science.
It is well passed time in the State of Washington to start putting victims of crime and regular hard working people ahead of criminals.
There were many local officials supporting bi-partisan efforts to strengthen the state’s drug possession laws, yet again liberal lawmakers prevented the legislation from passing. It appears that a special session will be needed to pass a drug possession bill. What do you believe the state’s drug possession laws should contain to help reduce crime and provide addicts with needed assistance?
This is another issue, much like the pursuit issue, where the elected leaders in Olympia simply are not in-line with the vast majority of those in our communities. It is NOT controversial to pass a law to say that drugs like fentanyl, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin, amongst others, should be illegal in the State of Washington. It is my belief that when the government allows substances like these to be legal and in some cases normalize hard drug use, they are encouraging more of this behavior and that is not good for society. I have worked the streets of Snohomish County for 27 years and I have never seen anything like fentanyl and the grip it has on people. It is sad and breaks my heart. I believe it is more humane to keep hard drugs illegal and provide the tools to law enforcement to get those that are addicted to substances the help they need than to turn our back on them and leave them to more drug use and potential death by overdose. If this means they spend a few days in jail, then so be it.
In line with my other answers, we have to have both accountability and compassion when it comes to helping people that are addicted to drugs. I believe accountability has been the trigger (I have seen this firsthand) that has helped some people addicted to drugs. Whether that means being booked into jail, a prison sentence, or a diversion program in lieu of criminal charges, accountability has to be part of the answer to changing people’s lives. As the Sheriff of a very large county, I am not interested in putting those that are addicted to drugs in my jail and forgetting about them. What we have learned is that some, if not most, of those addicted to drugs will not make a decision to seek treatment on their own, they need, physically and emotionally, some sort of “stick” to push them in that direction. Accountability is that stick. In most cases it just will not happen otherwise and those using fentanyl are incapable of making that decision on their own.
Our current approach of legalizing hard drugs is not humane, and it bothers me deeply that this is actually being advocated for in our state legislature. Their heart may be in the right place (getting people help) but I truly do not believe those advocating for the legalization of drugs in society understand the issue we are facing from a human perspective. We must do better.
In 2021 you started the “Lead The Way” program to help youths 13 – 17 years old who have already committed a crime. Tell us about the program and what do you hope to achieve.
I love this program! While we absolutely will take kids in that have committed a crime to get them on a better path, it is not a requirement for the program. We will take any youth in our community that will gain something from this program!
As I started my second year in elected office, I wanted something to give back to the community. I am personally passionate about the youth in our community, and I sometimes feel they are lacking programs or mentors that provide Leadership, Encouragement and Direction, so I started the Sheriff’s Lead the Way Program. It is for youth in Snohomish County, 13-17 years of age that may have found themselves lacking direction, are on a bad path, or simply are looking for mentors to help them navigate life at their age.
There are three basic themes to our program:
- Your mistakes do not define who you are (we all make them)
- No matter what you are going through, there is always hope (sadly not all youth get this message)
- We want the youth to find their personal passion in life!
I co-teach this youth program with Tyler Ware. Tyler has been to prison, was addicted to substances but has now reclaimed his life, has a family, a very successful career and is a very driven and passionate person. I want the kids in our program to see both paths in life, mine and Tyler’s. While my path has been far from perfect, I want them to see Tyler’s struggles and know they don’t have to go down this road in life. We all go through stuff in life, no matter if we wear a uniform or not, and I want the kids to know that. They can be doing everything right in life, and life is still going to throw hardship your way. Its ok. There is always hope and our program offers the youth long-term mentoring to help them through their own stuff.
Our Lead the Way Program is an 8 week program where we meet one night a week and on one Saturday morning to do some type of community service. We bring in guests from all over the community to present to the kids on different topics.
Week 8 is a graduation for the kids where we bring in a guest speaker from the community (Brandi Kruse, Prosecutor Adam Cornell) and we celebrate the kids for making it all 8 weeks.
I believe this program is one of kind in the entire country and it is helping kids. Our youth are craving leadership and direction, and this is my attempt to provide them with exactly that.
You can learn more about our program here.
Your department has begun to equip its deputies with body worn cameras. What are your feelings about using this technology and how is it being received by the officers?
This has been a very large project for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and fortunately we have had the support of the county government to bring this initiative to fruition. I support body cams in law enforcement as they build public trust, and they provide both internal and external accountability. If something that is caught on body cam is deemed wrong, we can hold that deputy accountable. Body cams will also provide incredible evidence by catching crimes as they are happening, interviews with suspects and victims, and are vital to making an audio and visual record of law enforcement in Snohomish County. This program is good for all!
Deputies are not shy about complaining, but I have not received one complaint from deputies on the topic of body cams. I believe they realized after the strained reputation (right or wrong) surrounding law enforcement for the last three years, deputies want the public to know what we go through on a daily basis, and they want an official record so when they are falsely accused of misconduct, we can view the videos for ourselves and find the truth.
It seems like nearly all major law enforcement departments in Western Washington are having trouble recruiting and retaining officers. Why do you believe this is occurring? What is your department doing to make sure staffing issues do not impact the county’s public safety?
Specifically in the State of Washington, when our lawmakers demonize an entire profession based on the actions of a few, those in that profession will leave when they don’t feel supported by those in government. It really is that simple. You could say that if the same things that have been said on the record about law enforcement over the course of the last three years by some of our elected officials, were said about any profession, I think it would have the same impact.
I believe the tide is turning in Washington State, albeit slowly. I can comfortably say the community in Snohomish County has been fantastic in their support of public safety. I believe community members want strong law and order and this is reflected in their support of our profession. I am very thankful for their support.
Specifically to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, we are setting hiring records every year I have been in Office (not 2020 as we had a hiring freeze). We are still seeing a steady stream of the next generation that want to work for the Sheriff’s Office and we are hiring them as fast as we can. Our office is on track in 2023 to break all historical hiring records. I am proud of this fact and all of the incredibly hard work by our people that goes into something like this. We are a large organization made up of over 800 employees which include deputies, corrections deputies, civilian staff and a full medical services department within the Snohomish County Jail. We are currently recruiting and hiring for all positions, and we are making up ground. While attrition was still high in 2021 and 2022, we find so far in 2023 this is starting to taper off, thus we are beginning to catch up.
I am optimistic!
For more information on Sheriff Fortney and to reach his office (for non emergencies), please visit his official website.