An up-close look at law enforcement in Pierce County: Doing more with less

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has been dealing with unprecedented crime levels coupled with a smaller police force.

KIRO 7′s Aaron Wright rode along with a Pierce County deputy to get a close look at what the force is up against daily.

Our first stop riding with Pierce County Sergeant Darren Moss featured something we’d see all day — people who appear to be impaired, accused of drinking or using drugs behind the wheel.

“The whole thing started with a person sleeping in a car, possibly high. That’s the kind of calls we get. This is what we get from those calls,” Moss said.

“This guy’s passed out in a vehicle and basically trespassing. Not a big deal, but then he decides to try and book it and now we’re doing a search warrant for all this stuff and he’s sitting in jail now,” explained Moss.

A short time later, a second DUI stop. This one was in the middle of the afternoon.

“It was apparent when we stepped on the scene she was woozy and wobbly. Another alcohol-related call to add to the box today,” said Moss.

Moss, a 13-year veteran and Pierce County native, has seen firsthand how the job has changed.

“We have to be counselors, we have to be police officers, we have to be marriage counselors, we have to be experts on raising kids, experts on de-escalation, experts on mental health, we have to be experts on fraud crimes, financial crimes,” explained Moss.

According to a Pierce County crime analysis, Central Patrol has seen a massive increase in crime. Armed robberies are up 196%, aggravated assaults are up 52%, car thefts are up 121% and non-residential burglaries are up 93%.

This analysis is a year-to-date measure of where crime levels stand compared to the past five years.

The early evening saw a mix of traffic calls. A speeding driver is let off with a warning, and a person sleeping behind the wheel turns out to be a man waiting for his friends.

“Somebody called about you. They’re worried about you, said you were passed out in the vehicle,” Moss told the man.

And Moss helps with traffic after a meal delivery driver is struck at an intersection.

As the sun sets, the intensity of calls turns up.

“He was going super slow and a guy goes around him, then he guns it, then jumps the curb and hits the cable line,” said crash witness Andrew Hutton.

“He ran into the cable that’s holding the pole. When they got here, he was unconscious in the vehicle and firefighters got here and believed he was under the influence of something and gave him Narcan,” Moss said, explaining the crash scene.

Next up is an unruly man inside a grocery store.

“It started as an unwanted person at Albertson’s and now that person was physically fighting with two customers, so we are trying to see if we can get there so we can break it up and see what this guy’s problem is,” said Moss.

After confronting the man, officers can assess the situation and determine what to do next.

“This is a shoplift. Two customers were trying to stop him from leaving and he got into an altercation with them. We’ll see what the deputies decide to do, they might release him or issue a ticket. We don’t have a physical assault, so we don’t have anything to take him to jail for, really.”

It wouldn’t be long before we heard from the man called Roberto again.

“He’s saying, ‘Let me in the bathroom.’ The bathroom’s closed. He kept on getting closer and closer,” said a Walgreens employee, describing Roberto’s actions inside the store.

At this point, EMS, deputies, and firemen are on the scene trying to get Roberto to accept help and go to a hospital or shelter.

“Otherwise, he’s going to become a victim of a crime, he might commit a crime, or he could just become a victim of circumstances. He lost his jacket, his feet are in terrible condition,” said Moss explaining the urgency in getting Roberto help.

Under Washington state law, they can’t force Roberto to do anything he doesn’t want to.

“Our goal is to resolve whatever issue he’s having, but he’s not working with us,” said Moss.

While first responders were trying to help Roberto, one deputy on the scene told us twenty 911 calls were on hold and there were two buildings on fire.

Designated Crisis Responders arrive to help Roberto, they have skills to help a person in crisis and can see if there’s a case history in Pierce County.

Crisis Responders discover that Roberto’s family has signed a Joel’s Law petition. This move means Roberto can be involuntarily detained.

“If those mental health workers weren’t here, would you know about that court order?” Wright asked Moss.

“We wouldn’t have known about that court order,” Moss replied.

“He’s going to get a better result getting care and not sitting in jail?” Wright asked.

“Correct, if he sits in jail, we do have mental health professionals, but we don’t have the facility to treat him there - jail is not going to resolve his problem,” Moss explained.

Deputies aren’t the only ones feeling the squeeze. On that day alone, 911 dispatchers handled 633 calls. That’s an average of 28 calls an hour and a call every two minutes.

The sheriff’s department is offering sign-on bonuses of $15,000 for lateral hires.

On Wednesday night, the Pierce County council voted to fund $10,000 retention bonuses for certain deputies.

The sheriff’s department is currently down 50 positions.