Against a backdrop of mounting scrutiny and calls for change, Pierce County voters will elect a new sheriff for the first time in nearly two decades.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor announced in October that he would retire after serving for 19 years — the longest tenure for a sitting sheriff in the state’s second-largest county.
Pastor originally planned to step down before the end of his term in December, but announced he was postponing his departure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The role he’s vacating is a challenging one, even when the population isn’t living through a public health crisis and civil unrest.
And now, scrutiny is bearing down directly on the department, following its role in investigating a case of deadly force by Tacoma police.
A lot has happened since Manuel Ellis told a Tacoma police officer restraining him "I can't breathe, sir," moments before he died late March 3.
The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a wave of Black Lives Matter protests that continue to grip the nation, including communities here in Puget Sound.
Calls to defund police departments and increase accountability for officers who use deadly force have intensified. They’re drawing renewed attention toward cases like Ellis’, which is now under investigation by the state patrol at the request of Gov. Jay Inslee.
The state attorney general’s office is reviewing dozens of cases in which police killed or wounded people. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is urging state lawmakers to create a database of those cases for improved transparency. And the governor has convened a task force to review and reform the rules stemming from voter-approved Initiative 940. The measure requires law enforcement agencies to involve the public in deadly force investigations, and ensure those investigations are truly independent.
Several weeks before Pastor postponed his retirement, Ellis was killed following a confrontation on a residential street in South Tacoma. Videos taken by witnesses and a home security camera show officers punching Ellis, using a Taser on him, wrapping an arm around his neck from behind, and pressing a knee into his body. He was unarmed.
The Pierce County medical examiner ruled Ellis’ death a homicide, due to a lack of oxygen "as a result of physical restraint, positioning" and the placement of a "spit hood" over his mouth. Methamphetamine contributed to his death, according to the medical examiner’s report.
As mandated under I-940, which went into effect in January, an independent agency was tasked with investigating the case. That fell to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
For months, critics said the agency was too close to the Tacoma Police Department for the investigation to be truly independent. Eventually, after Inslee said he was “convinced” the investigation should be handled elsewhere, the attorney general accused Pierce County of failing to comply with I-940.
“To be blunt, the result is a totally unnecessary delay in the investigation of this case,” Ferguson said in March.
Now, four candidates are vying to lead the agency under scrutiny. Whoever wins in November will take over during a particularly challenging time to assume a leadership role in law enforcement, and will be tasked with rebuilding trust within Pierce County communities. The sheriff leads a department of 424 law enforcement officers and civilians, as well as 323 corrections staff. Budgetary responsibilities include $296 million between the sheriff's department and corrections bureau, according to the 2020-21 biennial budget.
Candidates Doug Richardson and Ed Troyer possess the greatest name recognition in the race, while challengers Cyndie Fajardo and Darin Harris say voters shouldn’t count them out ahead of the Aug. 4 primary.
KNKX Public Radio spoke with each candidate. They discussed their visions for leading the department, as well as the role law enforcement should play in communities.
Troyer was a 22-year-old rookie when he started with Pierce County.
“It’s the only agency I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “And when I’m finished being sheriff, it’ll be the only agency I’ll ever work for.”
After a decade on the ground, including five years of investigation, the Tacoma native moved into an administrative role as media relations officer. He’s been among the most visible members of the department alongside Sheriff Pastor over the past 19 years.
He’s also the only candidate directly involved in the Ellis case. Family members of Ellis and their supporters have repeatedly called for Pastor and Troyer to step down, and for Troyer to withdraw his candidacy for sheriff. They say they're among those responsible for mismanaging the investigation.
While he’s limited in what he can say about the active investigation, Troyer said he understands the family’s frustration. He stands by the investigation his department conducted in the three months before the state stepped in, and is prepared to release it once doing so won’t jeopardize the state’s review.
In response to calls for him to resign and drop out of the race, Troyer says he’s “been an open book” as much as possible.
“We’ll wait for all the information in the case to come out and let everybody else decide when the information is out there, as a voter,” Troyer said.
He noted that a lack of clarity around certain aspects of I-940 — something the state’s task force is working to resolve — is part of the reason the Ellis case has been challenging.
“As long as we acknowledge the problems and we learn lessons from what we’re doing, we’ll be able to fix that in the future,” Troyer said. “We’re not trying to hide anything at all.”
Troyer says now is the time to re-establish the role of the sheriff’s department. He acknowledges that supporters of defunding law enforcement have legitimate concerns about the outsized role officers now hold.
“I think we’re in a changing time for police work right now,” Troyer said. “We need to change our training, we need to change the way we do business, and we need to definitely change our accountability.”
As behavioral health issues have grown in scope, he added, so have the responsibilities of police officers who aren’t necessarily trained to address them. The result is far too many repeat arrests, he says, without addressing the root of the problem.
“We need alternatives to arrests,” Troyer said. “But the alternatives to arrest have to mean something. There has to be some treatment. There has to be some accountability. There has to be some want by the people who are out doing these things to keep them from coming back to jail or coming back into the system.”
Troyer says Pierce County has started offering some solutions, including deploying so-called “co-responders,” social workers and mental health professionals who accompany officers on calls to help de-escalate in situations such as domestic violence and suicide prevention.
Troyer says he also wants to follow through on the department’s longtime goal of using body cameras, and hopes to continue recruiting efforts to increase racial diversity among the mostly white department.
Troyer says his ties to organizations such as Toys for Tots, CrimeStoppers and the Foster Parents Association of Washington position him to run a community-minded sheriff’s department that is vital during this moment in history.
“Every single officer in the department should always have that community policing mindset in everything we do,” he said, “because we work for the community.”
Richardson doesn’t shy away from his lack of law enforcement experience. In fact, he plans to wear it on his sleeve.
“My uniform in the office every day is going to be a coat and tie,” he said.
Richardson, who has been endorsed by the Pierce County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild, is a longtime politician in Pierce County. He served 17 years on the Lakewood City Council, including seven years as mayor. He is currently chair of the Pierce County Council, which he was first elected to in 2012.
Richardson landed in Lakewood through his Army service. He retired from the Army Reserve as a brigadier general after 32 years of active and reserve service.
“I’ve led very large organizations. The last one I led in the Army was about 12,000 soldiers across six upper Midwestern states,” he said. “I have the ability to establish a positive command climate, instill standards, ensure that those are enforced throughout. And, quite frankly, my command staff will make sure people are held accountable, we’re transparent and we provide the public safety needs of our citizens in Pierce County.”
Richardson stressed that his “outside, objective look” at the sheriff’s department allows him to review all policies and practices differently, down to how precincts are organized.
He said now is not the time to defund law enforcement, but rather find other ways to address issues outside the scope of policing, such as behavioral health. Richardson noted his direct involvement in some of those existing efforts. Among them are the county’s community liaison deputies and the so-called mobile community intervention resource team, both of which intervene on calls to help deputies de-escalate situations and connect people with social services.
“The county has demonstrated you can do that and more. When you look at the geographical boundaries that the sheriff’s department has to police, we don’t need to be looking for ways to take resources away," Richardson said of a jurisdiction that extends from Tacoma to the Mount Rainier foothills. "We need to be finding ways to put more resources in to provide citizens with the appropriate amount of protection.”
In response to claims about Pierce County’s lack of compliance with I-940, Richardson reiterated his goal to establish a positive command climate that holds officers accountable.
“I don’t know the nuances of I-940. That’s left to others to reveal,” he said. “We’ll be transparent and we’ll provide for public safety of our citizens. So, the department will comply with state law.”
Fajardo says her experience speaks for itself. She’s spent the majority of her career — 32 of 36 years — with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. She promoted through the ranks from deputy to lieutenant, serving in patrol and narcotics divisions. She’s spent 11 years as the community relations lieutenant.
“My goal is to bring the department to a reflection of what the community is and to advance equality,” she said.
Specifically, Fajardo says the officers on the streets don’t look like the communities they serve.
Fajardo, who lives in Spanaway, says she wants to address the systemic injustices in the criminal justice system that have long existed, but have received renewed attention following recent incidents of deadly force by police. She says this time feels different, and the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement seems better positioned than ever to establish institutional change.
“My heart bleeds for these families that have suffered over the death of their family members at the hands of police,” Fajardo said. “But my heart also bleeds for my officers who have to wear a scarlet letter because of the actions of others.”
Fajardo cited three programs she intends to continue from Pastor’s time leading the sheriff’s department: co-responders who help with de-escalation, the mobile response team that helps connect people with social services, and electronic tracking of use-of-force cases.
Her biggest change will be more aggressively recruiting officers of color.
“Our African American deputies are few and far between,” said Fajardo, who grew up in New York City and served in a diverse police department there. “We need to mirror (the community) if we’re going to make any advances in the future of our sheriff’s department.”
She says the key to making room for non-white officers is identifying what’s keeping them from applying, such as inequities in the process or fear of the job due to past negative experiences.
“It’s going to be a very heavy lift,” Fajardo said. “But we do have a number of people over the next five years, six years that are coming to the end of their career and retiring. So it’s a perfect opportunity to make this evaluation and have that be a target that we reach.”
A cultural change from within also includes improved training, Fajardo added, which means more resources, not less. She opposes calls to defund departments.
“If we want to make our police departments more accountable and train them better and bring them closer to recognizing the inequalities going on in the community, that’s going to take education,” Fajardo said. “That’s going to take money.”
She also stressed that following the rules of I-940 helps everyone, including officers and departments. The accountability measures help identify who isn’t fit for the job, and guarantee thorough investigations.
“The truth is the truth,” Fajardo said. “Whoever does the investigation, the truth will come out.”
Harris knows what it means to work in a mostly white department that’s actively diversifying its ranks. When he was hired as a Detroit police officer in 1996, he says the department was making a conscious effort to change its hiring practices.
Harris, who identifies as Black (his father was African American, his mother white), says the Pierce County Sheriff's Department needs to do a better job looking for new hires who look like him: “I know what it takes to change a department into that diverse role.”
Harris said his four years at the department showed him what it takes to get buy-in from the community.
“The community makes your department work 100 percent,” he said. “If you don’t have a good relationship with the community, then your department is null and void.”
Right now, Harris says, Pierce County has a disconnect between its citizens and law enforcement. He wants to change that.
“The department needs a new face,” he said. “All three of the candidates have a tremendous amount of time in Pierce County. And they had the opportunity to change a long time ago. And they failed.”
Specifically, Harris says Pierce County needs to improve its response times, including out in his neighborhood in Spanaway. He noted that it took deputies an hour to respond to a call involving his kids two summers ago.
Harris started his career as a firefighter and EMT at 18, while living in Michigan. He spent 13 years in fire service in the city of Flat Rock and 10 years in the Army, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. He’s currently a patrol supervisor for the Department of Defense.
Body cameras are among Harris’ top priorities. “They can save your career,” he said. He also wants to address staff retention and increase pay for officers, instead of losing them to city departments that pay more.
But he’s not in favor of increasing the department’s budget. Instead, he wants to retool spending by identifying “the programs that are not working.”
As for independent investigations mandated through I-940, Harris says there’s only one agency that’s truly independent: the FBI. Federal agents are the “ultimate third party,” he said.
Growing up Black in a predominantly white neighborhood, Harris says he understands what it feels like not to trust police. After his father was murdered by a coworker and his mother was sexually assaulted, that changed.
“You have to bring back community policing to understand what the community wants,” he said, stressing that police shouldn’t only interact with the people when an incident happens. “I have to go out to the community and win the trust back for the department.”