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Sheriff’s Office requests $300,000 in COVID-19 funding for helicopter thermal imaging system

A sheriff’s helicopter circles repeatedly as protesters and police clash in downtown Spokane during riots after the George Floyd protest on May 31, 2020. The Sheriff’s Office is asking for $300,000 in federal coronavirus funds to buy thermal imaging equipment for the helicopter.  (Libby Kamrowski/Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane County Sherifff’s Office has asked for $300,000 in federal COVID-19 aid funding for a helicopter thermal scanner, which it says could help with social distancing, responding to protests and reducing manpower needed when policing the county.

Spokane County already has had thermal imaging for at least a decade, when it purchased used cameras which sheriff’s deputies use for search and rescue, tracking suspects and most recently, monitoring protests. Spokane County Undersheriff Dave Ellis, along with Chief Administrative Officer for the Sheriff’s Office Todd Mielke, told commissioners during a meeting Monday that the thermal imaging could help deputies better understand what is happening on the ground without relying on a large number of deputies responding to a scene in person.

“As we have experienced staff shortages and as we tried to be careful about social distancing with our troops on the ground, the air support unit is able to give us more technology to evaluate situations with fewer people,” Mielke said during the meeting.

In a phone interview following the meeting, Ellis said the technology had been helpful to law enforcement when responding to the recent protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. He said more deputies at the protest may not have helped the situation and the sheriff’s helicopter that flew over the protest was able to inform law enforcement where the protest was going, allowing them to block traffic around protesters when needed.

He said the sheriff’s department was aware before the pandemic that the technology was aging, but said it had been especially helpful recently and it is on its last leg.

“It’s something that we’ve known is on the horizon and it’s getting harder to repair,” he said.

Spokane County commissioners have spent more than $12 million in CARES funding out of the $90 million the county received . Spokane County was the only government in Eastern Washington large enough to receive a direct payment from the U.S Treasury. The funding only can be used for COVID-19 related expenses and must be spent by year’s end.

Examples of allowable expenses include COVID-19 testing, grants to small businesses affected by COVID-19, and investments in teleworking to allow public employees to work from home.

Commissioners already voted to spend $6 million in CARES funding to pay for the Spokane Regional Health District’s contact tracing team and COVID-19 response; $2 million on a free PPE program for businesses; and $2 million on food programs at Second Harvest.

The request for the thermal imaging funds was made during a law and justice presentation to commissioners where Regional Law and Justice Administrator Maggie Yates presented a list of requests from the courts, county attorneys, the jail, sheriff’s office and county clerks office, which say they need technology and additional support so employees can social distance while providing basic services. Altogether, those groups are requesting $7 million in CARES funding.

About $4.3 million of that total $7 million law-and-justice request is for temporary jails, or SPRUNG structures. Detention Services asked for those structures before the pandemic hit Spokane in February, saying they could alleviate jail crowding and move the county to the direct supervision model of corrections, which means inmates get to be outside of their cells most of the day.

Detention services again requested the structures in May, saying it could help with social distancing and a potential uptick in inmates that could hit the jail as the courts resume activities. If commissioners approve that request, the SPRUNG structures would likely be built outside of Geiger’s Correction Facility, were commissioners already approved a feasibility study for the project.

The Sheriff Office and Detention Services requested the most funding. Detention Services requested a total of $5.9 million. About $1.6 million was for changes to the intake and releasing area to allow for social distancing and $23,500 was for in-custody remote hearings, which would also allow for social distancing.

The Sheriff’s Office requested a total of $426,500. While most of that request was for the helicopter thermal imaging system, $100,000 was for full face protection and respirators; $10,000 was for analytics software; and $16,500 was for a vehicle disinfectant program. The vehicle disinfect program would allow an officer to warm up their vehicle to the point that any traces of the virus is killed inside the vehicle.

The third largest request was a $255,880 ask from Juvenile Court. It requested a paging system to allow people to wait in their cars, a remodel to their intake area, a telehealth kiosk to allow children in custody to access counselors and health care providers, security cameras in quarantine areas, laptops for schoolwork and remote learning, webcams, hazard pay for essential personal and computers for remote work.

Municipal Court, city prosecutors, public defenders, pretrial services, counsel for defense, county prosecutors and public defenders, Superior Court, District Court, the hearing examiner and the Superior Court clerk requested about $298,000. Most of that money would be for technology to assist with telecommunication and remote court proceedings. But a significant portion was also set aside for remodeling that would assist with social distancing, hiring temporary employees to deal with backlogs caused by the virus as well as screens and glass to separate and social distance.

Superior Court Clerk Tim Fitzgerald also requested funding, included in the total, for an e-filing system, which would allow the clerk to catch up on its backlog and allow domestic violence victims to file protection orders without having to come to the courthouse in person.

Yates, on behalf of other stakeholders in the County’s Law and Justice Council, also requested several investments which could help with social distancing and keeping the jail population lower during the pandemic. That would include $400,000 for supervised release.

County Commissioner Al French said most of the requests appeared to be things the county needed, but they may not all be eligible for CARES funding, and they may be funded over a long process as the county considers other needs in the community, such as additional funding for the Spokane Regional Health District, or small businesses grants. He said commissioners and staff would likely research the proposals over the next few weeks to make those determinations as Spokane County prepares for much lower than previously estimated tax revenues.

French said he still needed to study specific requests and if they were allowable CARES funds expenses before making decisions to fund any specific requests such as the helicopter thermal scanner, SPRUNG structures or other programs.

“We’re so early in the process, I can’t tell you what will survive and what won’t survive,” he said.

French said he was still open to one controversial request, the SPRUNG structures, saying they could address a situation similar to the outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, where an inmate recently died from COVID-19. French said that adding temporary structures does not necessarily mean the county would fill them with inmates and add more people to the jail during the pandemic.

Recently, the jail population has stayed between 500 to 600 inmates instead of the 900 usually housed in the jail due to a court order to reduce the population during the pandemic. Many low-level offenders that may have been housed in the jail during normal circumstances are being released.

French said said commissioners would discuss the proposals again the Monday after the 4th of July holiday.