October 19, 2019 Dena Jensen
“The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement. We must never erode this historic office.” – Jeff Sessions, February 12, 2018
If you read GQ correspondent, Drew Magary’s perspective piece from February of 2018, “The Case Against Sheriffs,” a social climate that embraces overtly racist and violent Sheriffs, a sampling of which Magary highlights, is not one found in Whatcom County.
No, we don’t have a Sheriff Joe Arpaio in our county. And I don’t see much in the way of Whatcom County leaders who espouse, outright, such dedication to the “anglo-American heritage” of the office of sheriff, as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions did on February 12, 2018.
However, the mile-long list of endorsements from local officials and organizations which incumbent candidate, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, has been reeling off at candidate events has gotten me thinking.
It’s not like this official support of Sheriff Elfo is a surprise. For example, I hear the County Council Members talk in meetings. Unfettered reverence of the Sheriff seems the name of the game. Even if officials disagree with Sheriff Elfo on a policy or action, consistent homage to the Sheriff is paid.
Never mind, that Sheriff Elfo has been arguably one of the most avid proponents of a new jail which would be sized, complete with an ever-increasing capacity to accommodate people being locked up.
Never mind, that Sheriff Elfo has appeared in Olympia offering testimony in support of Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen’s proposed 2017 SB 5009 that would have sought to categorize certain types of protest as acts of “economic terrorism” that would merit stiff mandatory sentences.
Never mind that Sheriff Elfo can’t seem to fathom that immigrants in our community are scared to report dangers to themselves or others for fear of detainment or deportation.
Never mind that Sheriff Elfo has in years past, in the face of decades of needed life safety renovations for the county jail in downtown Bellingham, failed to throw himself into advocacy for those renovations, and moreover, (as of August 7, 2019) had not even managed to acquire consent for a safe evacuation area for residents of that facility in the case of an emergency.
Here’s a quote from the February 16, 2018 GQ piece by Magary:
“More important, sheriffs benefit—electorally, personally, and financially—from their stature as outsize law-enforcement officials. The vagueness of their duties only helps them perpetuate the archetype. They enjoy a measure of authority, with both voters and jurors, that is nearly impregnable. When Sessions describes sheriffs as ‘the people’s protector,’ you and I both know what kind of people he’s talking about: white people who love sheriffs.”
Think about the level of power that the presumption of sanctity for the office of Sheriff — and the current person occupying it — has in relation to the level of effort exerted to affect significant remedy to our discriminatory and traumatizing current local justice and public safety system here in Whatcom County.
Whatcom County’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force has been interacting, since their inception a few years back, with the likes of Bill Elfo and former Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran. With the consistent drumbeat of espoused reverence for these champions of incarceration, again, it is not surprising that the concessions that have been made toward reform — small by standards of what is actually needed to create a restorative community — seem like major accomplishments. It is not surprising, in light of the fact that the Sheriff recounts frequently that he is supported by long lists of colleagues, that everyone can’t imagine what they would do without someone who is so thoroughly embraced.
But, if our community is truly serious about providing ample mental and behavioral health services, restorative justice, the banishment of racial bias, and a meaningful overhaul of the reasons we lock people up, isn’t the illusion that a sheriff is an imperative, permanent, and unquestioned need, something we should be actively seeking to dispel?