Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson wants voters to know that providing county law enforcement with adequate jail space, salaries and manpower is, according to Idaho law, the responsibility of the Kootenai County Board of Commissioners.
That said, the county’s nine-year incumbent sheriff acknowledges he’s the one who has to deal with the ramifications of inadequate facilities, salaries that don’t measure up to surrounding areas, and inexperienced deputies. Eight years ago, he said, the average deputy on the street had eight years of experience. Today, that person has two years. Earlier this year, three deputies left to work for higher pay in Spokane, taking with them 70 combined years of experience. Before the year is out, he anticipates losing four more.
The staffing levels are the lowest of any Idaho metropolitan county and well below national, state or local averages, said Watson, who is being challenged in the general election by Arthur “Skip” Ingle, a retired school district truck driver with no law enforcement experience.
“The average response time for a life-threatening call should be about four or five minutes; ours is about 14 minutes because of our staffing,” Watson said. “Those issues have always gone on and we’re always working toward those.”
Ingle said he’s aware of problems with staffing, pay and the overflowing jail, and he’d like to take a stab at solving them. He retired a few years ago to the land his wife’s family has owned for years on top of Potlatch Hill. He said he decided to run when he saw Watson was unopposed but acknowledges he has no real concerns about the way the sheriff is doing things.
“They’ve been running so understaffed and underpaid, I don’t know that I could make a difference, but I could try,” Ingle said. “I thought, ‘I’ve never run for public office before, so it might be interesting.’ ”
He explains away his lack of law enforcement experience saying, “The sheriff’s position is primarily management,” experience he says he gained during six or seven years as a shop steward for the Teamsters, while working as a truck driver for a school district in Western Washington.
“I pretty much agree with all that Rocky’s trying to do,” Ingle said. “The only thing is maybe I could lend a different perspective to it.”
What Watson has been trying to do over the past few years, the sheriff said, is as much as possible with limited resources. He’s expanded the sheriff’s volunteer base to about 300-strong to free deputies up for the most serious calls. He’s “civilian-ized” jobs that take less training and less pay, including taking reports for non-life-threatening incidents, like vandalism. The sheriff’s office uses volunteers for the search and rescue team, the horse-mounted posse that assists with backcountry searches and the auxiliary.
Watson said he’s also reached out to other city and county law enforcement agencies in North Idaho and Eastern Washington with cross-deputization agreements to ensure other departments can easily lend a hand when Kootenai County’s deputies are overtaxed. That was crucial when the county’s deputies were swamped with the Groene case, for example, he said.
Now he’d like to expand upon that, he said, by using wireless mapping technology to enhance crime analysis and information gathering. He wants to work with Spokane law enforcement agencies to better track criminals that regularly cross state lines so both have the same information on file about repeat offenders.
“It used to be if we stopped a Washington car and we wanted a records check, our dispatcher would have to call their dispatcher and they would go into their files and call us back. Now all that stuff is connected,” Watson said. “Our people have direct links to Spokane files. If we stop a Spokane gang member, we don’t have to contact the Spokane gang unit. We can get his criminal history while we make the stop.”
A brave girl jumps from the rocks on the west side of Tubbs Hill as her two friends watch. (Don Sausser/Facebook photo)
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