Washington Sheriff Faces Recall Efforts for Endangering Public Health

The Snohomish County sheriff is among a string of officials nationwide who have combined a refusal to enforce lockdown orders with broader policies of increased policing and arrests.

Jessica Pishko   |    June 25, 2020

Facebook/Sheriff Adam Fortney’s campaign page

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Snohomish County’s Adam Fortney is among a string of sheriffs who have combined a refusal to enforce lockdown orders with broader policies of increased policing and arrests.

In Snohomish County, Washington, just north of Seattle and home to the first known U.S. coronavirus case, Sheriff Adam Fortney is facing two separate recall petitions that accuse him of endangering the community’s public health. If either gathers the 44,494 in-person signatures needed within six months, it may leave Fortney fighting for his job next year.

The earlier petition, filed by a county resident, is narrowly focused on Fortney’s refusal to enforce the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation of Washington’s Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. In late April, Fortney joined the front lines of a burgeoning movement among county sheriffs to refuse to enforce coronavirus-related health orders. “As your elected sheriff I will always put your constitutional rights above politics or popular opinion,” he declared via his Facebook page on April 21. “The impacts of COVID-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights.” He repeated the same message at a news conference the next day. Soon after, a local barber said he was inspired by Fortney’s words and reopened his shop with no masks or social distancing.

But Fortney’s greater legacy as a law enforcement official might be his tough-on-crime position during his 2019 campaign for sheriff, during which he argued that local law enforcement had been too lax and his predecessor too timid when it came to arresting and jailing people.

Fortney ran with the support of local Republicans on a platform of returning “law and order” to the sheriff’s office. He attacked Ty Trenary, the incumbent who ran with Democratic support, for engaging in “catch and release” practices by issuing citations in lieu of arresting people. “If it’s a misdemeanor offense … this sheriff has said that we’re not taking people into jail if they’re high on drugs,” Fortney said on a local radio show. He has also said that jailing people could help them “detox a little,” a view decried by public health advocates. The local jail was rocked by a string of  jail deaths earlier this decade.

“Fortney ran a hard and well-strategized campaign, playing to his base with fear tactics,” Colin McMahon, a local public defender, told the Appeal: Political Report.

Fortney, who was the president of the county’s Deputy Sheriffs Association, a union of sheriff’s deputies, also said during his campaign that the sheriff’s office should function as a “paramilitary organization,” and promised to empower deputies to make more arrests. “I want patrol officers and deputies to be able to do their jobs,” he said in one debate.

Upon taking office in January, Fortney quickly followed through on this platform. He reinstated three deputies whom Trenary had fired for misconduct or excessive use of force. One of those deputies, Art Wallin, had been fired after shooting and killing a man in 2018 following a vehicle pursuit; Fortney was Wallin’s supervisor at the time, and he was reprimanded for failing to call off the pursuit. Fortney reinstated policies that made it easier for deputies to conduct such “hot pursuits,” and he reversed efforts to decrease the jail population during the pandemic. 

The second recall petition filed against Fortney, which is championed by McMahon and a coalition of other local advocates and public defenders, takes this broader view of his short tenure thus far, beyond his resistance to Inslee’s order. 

It emphasizes the criminal legal system’s impact on public health. It makes the case that increasing arrests and bookings harms the community’s well-being, and reinstating the fired deputies risks putting more people in harm’s way, in violation of Fortney’s oath of office. It also faults Fortney for not enforcing Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, though at a hearing in June, both parties agreed that Fortney was not required to arrest people for violating the order.

“Every day [Fortney] remains in office, the health and safety of the public is at risk,” McMahon said.

Many of the sheriffs who have defied stay-at-home orders, like Fortney, have a longtime record of fighting criminal justice reforms. During the pandemic, they have combined their dismissal of lockdowns with a resistance to decarcerate jails, even though jails and prisons have been “petri dishes” for the disease. 

These sheriffs are typically conservatives in Democratic-run states. Isolated statewide, they tend to flex their lawmaking muscle locally with an approach of making aggressive arrests and policing those they see as threats while shielding the people they see as upright citizens. 

For example, Sheriff Chad Bianco of Riverside County, California, went on Fox and Friends in May saying he refused to “make criminals out of law-abiding business owners.” Bianco had earlier resisted efforts to shrink the jail’s population despite it being the site of one of California’s biggest coronavirus outbreaks, which has caused the death of at least one deputy; a federal judge intervened to demand more precautions.

Fortney wrote a Facebook post praising Bianco, and he has scorned statewide policies to decarcerate. 

The Snohomish County Jail population did drop significantly in April when law enforcement reduced jail bookings and the county’s chief prosecutor, Adam Cornell, a Democrat, agreed to implement new bail policies to facilitate some people’s release. But on April 21, Fortney sent a public letter to law enforcement agencies saying it was time to increase the jail population and lift restrictions on bookings. He also took to Facebook to defend his opposition to releases. “The groups that brought this petition are using the COVID 19 pandemic as a cover to further their political/social goals and it is unconscionable,” he wrote in reference to legal efforts to decarcerate in light of the pandemic. “They will not be satisfied until the prisons are empty.” 

McMahon thinks Fortney was trying to “score points with his base,” which “lives in fear of increased crime rates due to reduced incarceration, even though the data does not support that in the slightest.”

Fortney’s office did not respond to a request for comment. 

On Facebook, he has described his actions as a “political disagreement” with Inslee, casting his potential recall as a debate over policy choices, not dereliction of duty. In early June, a judge ruled that the recall petition was substantiated by enough evidence that Fortney had broken his oath of office to proceed to a recall election, pending the requisite signatures. Fortney has appealed to the state Supreme Court, where the case is pending.

As politicians and advocates look to new policies and legislation to defund or regulate police forces, sheriffs present an obstacle because their elected positions and independent authority gives them broad fiat to manage their jails and personnel as well as directly decide their department’s policies.

Their power to rehire deputies with a record of misconduct or brutality looms large in the face of the current protests. Much like Fortney, for instance, one of the first moves of Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva after his 2018 election was to reinstate deputies who had been removed for misconduct, including domestic abuse and lying. 

In some places, local officials and advocates have tried, with some success, to use budgets as a powerful source of leverage over sheriffs. In Los Angeles, nethey  persuaded the county board to stop a plan to build a new jail last year. Los Angeles voters also adopted an initiative in March that would divest money from the jail.

In Snohomish, though, Fortney successfully pushed back against proposals to cut his budget this month, despite complaints about his behavior. Because of budget shortfalls, the county board planned to implement a 4.25 percent cut across the board. A group of public defenders and other advocates, many of whom are also behind the recall petition, asked for the county to go further and reduce the sheriff’s budget by 50 percent. 

Fortney objected that his office should be exempt from even the modest decrease being asked of every department.  “There is an actual effort underway to ‘defund’ the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office,” he wrote on Facebook. “I believe the people behind this effort are very few but they are very loud!” 

After a long meeting on June 10, the board decided to cut the sheriff’s budget—and all other budgets—by 3.5 percent, less than its initial proposal. Sam Low, a Republican member of the county council, said in an email that the decision “has nothing to do with the current Sheriff. It is not the Sheriff who would have received a lay-off notice but Deputies.”

Fortney celebrated this as a win on Facebook. “While EVERYONE will still be feeling the budget crunch due to COVID, this compromise will keep deputies on the street!,” he wrote in a post that echoed his past statements about empowering deputies. They just will not be there to facilitate public health guidelines regarding COVID-19.