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Advocates worry cuts to Snohomish County outreach unit could lead to deaths

Three units are being shut down, including a national model for dealing with addiction and homelessness.

SNOHOMISH COUNTY, Wash — In the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, these days, there are only 98 deputies to respond to the 911 calls of about 350,000 people.

And the numbers are not getting any better. 

"I've never seen anything like we're facing in 2022 in my 25 years," said Sheriff Adam Fortney.

The office has lost 30 deputies in the first six months of this year alone, which is 50% more than average, according to statistics provided by the sheriff's office. There are currently 27 vacancies and 16 deputies in training who won't be available for many more months. 

In Snohomish County, crime is on the rise and criminals are increasingly "brazen" and "violent," Fortney said. 

Fortney recalled one episode where a deputy in the South Precinct was in a "fight for his life" and couldn't get back up. 

"The bottom line is when he was able to call for help, help was too far away and it took too long," said Fortney.

In response, the sheriff is moving a dozen deputies from three specialty units back on patrol. The move includes officers from the K9 unit, the Directed Patrol Unit that deals proactively with communities to fight crime, and the Office of Neighborhoods, which pairs social workers with deputies to address issues like homelessness and addiction.

In that last unit's first few years, it became a national model.

Teams have gotten hundreds of people off the streets, into housing and off of drugs, including Shandell Orr. 

In 2016, she was addicted to meth and heroin, had lost custody of her children, and had lost all hope.

Shandell had planned to die by suicide, but instead found help that saved her life.

"I would be dead without them," she said, concerned about what will happen when the unit closes. "People are going to die. Women are going to be raped and beat up. Men are going to be raped and beat up. It's really ugly out there. This is truly a program that lends a helping hand."

Orr celebrates five years sober next month, has reconnected with her kids and is graduating with a four-year degree from the University of Washington.

She plans to carry on and get her Master's of Social Work.

"I couldn't have done any of this without them," Orr said.

Penelope Protheroe runs the nonprofit Angel Resource Connection which helps provide food, housing and support for people on the street. 

In a statement to KING 5, she said, "Communities are safer when the homeless are helped. Suppose our community loses these specialty units that help the homeless with drug and mental health issues. More of the burden would fall on nonprofits with their boots on the ground, trying to resolve these and similar issues with the homeless daily. We put ourselves in difficult situations. Knowing the social worker and police officer teams were out there was comforting.  We understand the challenges of the staffing shortages and hope this is a temporary situation."

Sheriff Fortney stressed the department will still connect people with social services, but right now the situation simply isn't sustainable.

"This is heartbreaking to me," he said. "If this is miraculously cured in two months they'll be back doing that work, but right now we're calling them permanent cuts because we have to address public safety, safety to our deputies and 911 calls for service."

Fortney also indicated this may not be the end of the shakeup.

"Everything is on the table," he said.

    

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