Pierce County Sheriff: Serving the Key Peninsula

Sara Thompson

In Key Peninsula’s rural and unincorporated setting, the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department provides the community with crime-protection and prevention services.

Sgt. Brian Ward, who is one of two sergeants heading the Peninsula Detachment, recently reviewed the basics of how the department works and the resources available for the Key Peninsula. Ward has 27 years with the sheriff’s department; he worked the Peninsula Detachment as a patrol deputy (1994-2001) and has served as sergeant here since 2007.

The sheriff’s department is responsible for unincorporated Pierce County and has three detachments (Peninsula, Mountain and Foothills), all overseen by Lt. Larry Minturn.

Peninsula Detachment has two districts: District 14 (unincorporated Gig Harbor and Fox Island) and District 15 (Key Peninsula). Two sergeants are responsible for the Peninsula Detachment, and 17 patrol deputies cover both districts.

With three 10-hour shifts, there is always one deputy on duty in each district. Deputies provide backup for each other if needed and this can sometimes cause a delay in responding to local calls.

Community policing is often discussed in urban settings —officers get to know a community and develop relationships beyond simply law enforcement. When asked how that pertains to the Key Peninsula, Ward noted, “In a rural setting, there can be a real advantage —because we have a small number of officers, if there are problems, residents are seeing the same people.

“And the officers on the Key Peninsula tend to be more senior,”he said. “They like working here and tend to take more time when dealing with complaints. The consistency is usually good, though it can be a problem if the resident and the officer don’t have a good interaction.”

Ward and Minturn attend the monthly Citizens Against Crime meetings whenever possible, and along with deputies, they also try to attend community events including National Night Out.

Since the economic downturn in 2008, there have been some significant losses in staffing. Ward noted that the department has lost several positions in the Peninsula Detachment. The first was a noncommissioned position, the community support officer. That person did community outreach and education and helped groups like Citizens Against Crime and neighborhood block watches organize.

Active patrol positions were also eliminated. The position of neighborhood patrol deputy ended about five years ago. That deputy was called in for non-911 types of calls such as neighborhood disputes. In addition, the detachment lost a traffic officer who was responsible for dealing with congestion, speeding and accidents.

Minturn said that all Pierce County detachments lost positions, and the problem with staffing is compounded by the difficulty in filling vacancies. The recruiting and training process is slow. Currently the Peninsula detachment has one open position that he hopes to fill by the beginning of 2016. Shifts are filled through overtime in the meantime.

When asked about trends on the Key Peninsula, Ward noted that most crimes are related to property, and that the root cause is probably drug activity —thefts to pay for illicit drug use. A special investigative unit has helped to decrease the number of methamphetamine labs but he said the processing of marijuana has become more of an issue recently.

Minturn concurred, adding that heroin has become a major problem now that methamphetamine use and manufacture has declined.

He said that compared to the other Pierce County detachments, Peninsula has a few challenges. First, the physical isolation caused by both bridges does have an impact. The large waterfront means that there are more boat-related property crimes.

And, because of the proximity to both Mason and Kitsap counties, he describes the problem of “border hopping”in which criminals living in one county go to another to perpetrate their crimes. It means the departments from all three counties need to work closely together.

Both Minturn and Ward agreed that there are “hot spots”on the Key. Crimes tend to be more concentrated in areas where there is higher population density, more inexpensive housing and a younger population

A single murder occurred and was solved last year. One murder this year was uncovered in July. Investigation of an abandoned car led to discovery of the body of Lynn Carver, 69, in her home. An autopsy revealed the cause of death to be multiple stab wounds. The case is still under investigation.

Ward shared information comparing the manpower available to cover the Peninsula District compared to that for the Gig Harbor Police Department —and the numbers are telling. The Peninsula District has one deputy per 3,667 people, while Gig Harbor has one officer per 850 (see sidebar at keypennews.com).

Although this difference between rural and more urban staffing is not unusual, there are a few takeaway points, which Minturn endorsed. First, if citizens feel that they need more law enforcement and prevention, they need to advocate for more funding. Second, communities partnering with the sheriff may help in these times of fewer resources. And groups like Citizens Against Crime serve as a valuable resource in that partnership.

Ward reported the following statistics for Key Peninsula in August: seven felony arrests, 25 traffic accidents, 15 false alarms and 36 traffic stops (speeding, reckless driving). Statistics for a full 12 months are available on the department’s website.

Minturn had this advice for those wanting to know what to do: “First, if there is an emergency or a crime in progress, call 911. To report incidents no longer in progress, call (253) 798-4721. If you want to report suspicious drug activity, the number is (253) 798-7537. Good descriptions, license plate numbers and pictures are all very helpful. The online system is especially helpful. We read and heed.”

All phone numbers and web-based contacts are listed on the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department website at co.pierce.wa.us (follow the Safety & Judicial navigation menu).