Thurston County deputies threaten lawsuit if staffing levels remain low

The Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is threatening to file a complaint against Thurston County, alleging that cuts to the force have resulted in unsafe working conditions.

Oregon-based attorney Daryl Garrettson, who represents the association, sent a letter and draft copy of the complaint Monday to county Commission Chairwoman Cathy Wolfe. The draft names Wolfe, commissioners Sandra Romero and Bud Blake, and the county as defendants.

So far, no lawsuit has been filed in Thurston County Superior Court.

According to a report by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, in 2014 the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office had the fewest commissioned deputies per 1,000 residents in the unincorporated areas of the county of any county sheriff’s office in Washington state.

Ben Elkins, president of the Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said that deputies are concerned for the safety of both deputies and citizens.

“It is the hope of the Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association that the Board of County Commissioners will recognize these concerns and begin an effort to rebuild the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office staffing to an adequate level so that the citizens can feel safe in their homes and the Sheriff Deputies can respond to 911 calls and know back up is available sooner rather than later,” Elkins said.

Wolfe didn’t respond to The Olympian’s requests for comment Friday.

The letter sent to Wolfe alleges that deputies are being “worked to the bone in order to meet the needs of citizens,” and that deputies are unable to take time off from work to rest and recuperate.

“The association looks at litigation as a last ditch effort to alleviate the situation and would prefer not to resort to that avenue. However, if steps are not taken soon the association will have no alternative but to file the attached complaint,” the letter reads.

The draft complaint alleges that 23 of the 30 injuries sustained by deputies in 2014 were the result of lack of additional deputies to provide backup and cover. The document lists the injuries, describing incidents in which deputies were kicked, hit by cars, hit with wooden objects and bitten by dogs.

Deputies reportedly sustained sprains, burns, cuts, bruises and broken limbs.

“By cutting the budget the Sheriff has not been able to maintain safe staffing levels. This breach has caused injuries to several employees of the Sheriff’s Office that are a result of this lack of cover or backup,” the draft reads.

Elkins said deputies also sustained a large number of on-the-job injuries that could be tied to low staffing in previous years. He said that 15 such injuries were reported in 2013, and 16 in 2012.

The draft complaint alleges that the county and commissioners violated state law by creating a working environment that endangers the health and safety of employees, and that county and commissioners’ actions were “negligent and/or intentional.”

According to the report by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, Thurston County had 0.57 commissioned deputies per 1,000 residents. Neighboring Lewis County had 0.78 deputies per 1,000 residents and Pierce County has 0.73 deputies per 1,000 residents.

Yakima County had the second fewest, with 0.59 deputies per 1,000 residents. Garfield County had the most, with 2.68 commissioned deputies per 1,000 residents. The remaining counties fall somewhere in between, with the average Washington county having 1.08 commissioned deputies per 1,000 residents in 2014.

Elkins said it’s just a matter of time before Thurston County’s low staffing has deadly consequences.

“The Thurston County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is concerned if this situation is not fixed, it will ultimately result in a serious incident either injuring or killing a deputy because no cover deputy was available,” Elkins said. “Or even more importantly, a citizen is seriously injured or killed because a deputy was not available to respond to the citizen’s call for help.”