Tonasket City Council members voted last week to disband the police department temporarily and contract for services with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office.
With only one officer left on staff — and that officer, Jose Perez, has since been laid off — and no police building available other than temporary housing in the Tonasket Visitor and Business Resource Center until May, the decision seems the best, if only route to take.
Comments from the public were heard during a special meeting Jan. 2, after which the decision was unanimously approved by council members, except Maria Moreno, who was not present.
Concerns voiced by citizens included response time from county deputies.
Four deputies are already assigned to the north end of the county. With a large area to cover, response time can indeed be longer than a situation demands. But some residents have stated they would rather wait an extra five minutes for a qualified deputy to arrive than to have an unqualified officer show up.
According to City Attorney Mick Howe, all cases handled by former officer John Cruz are expected to be thrown out by the prosecuting attorney - even those already found guilty.
The City of Tonasket was fined several thousand dollars by the state Department of Labor and Industries for the state of disrepair and health hazards present in the police station. According to past city council members and previous police chiefs, the city was aware of the problems and chose to ignore them for decades.
No money for repairs or a new building were included in yearly budgets.
Additionally, the city has long had difficulty recruiting and keeping police chiefs and officers, due mostly to wages substantially lower than those paid by other area police departments and the county sheriff’s office.
Mayor Dennis Brown, the final authority on hiring and firing a police chief, appears to be a bit befuddled by the situation.
Perhaps it’s time we let the professionals take over, and not just for the short term.
Sheriff Tony Hawley said he can’t justify hiring new deputies if Tonasket were to contract for just one year of coverage.
And, unless a new police station, chief and eligible officers were to miraculously appear within the year, the City of Tonasket is going to need coverage from the sheriff’s office for a lot longer than 12 months.