One afternoon in late July, deputies at the Clark County Jail received an email that landed like an apple with a worm.
Nearby departments offered better pay, incentives and signing bonuses, the email read. To help his shorthanded staff, the sheriff was going to add bodies by offering more money to new hires.
“The sheriff exercised his authority and offered new employees a conditional offer to ‘Step 5′ on the specific pay scales,” wrote Undersheriff John Chapman. “The purpose of this is to immediately attract a larger pool of applicants as we are in desperate need.”
The corrections deputies’ union had just signed a new labor contract. The sheriff couldn’t offer raises, Chapman added, but he could pay rookie deputies as if they already had years on the job.
“We realize this will be upsetting for some of you to see new hires coming in at a higher step,” Chapman wrote. “It may seem unfair, but the sheriff feels he must do what he can to attract and hire more employees as soon as possible.”
Jail deputies immediately started calling each other. They talked of finding other jobs. Union leaders started forming complaints to top county staff.
It was one of a handful of internal dramas that demonstrates why Clark County’s top administrators ultimately took the unusual step last fall of stripping the sheriff’s office of its own control over the county jail.
The Jail Services Department launched Jan. 1, making Clark one of a handful of counties in Washington state where the sheriff and its jail are completely divorced. Others include King and Spokane counties.
Interviews and records show that, in the summer, county officials grew concerned with the state of the jail when they decided to absorb its nearly $30 million budget and 150-person staff.
Stakeholders seem to agree the new arrangement is showing promising signs. But many of the problems that soured the sheriff’s relationship with the jail haven’t gone away.
Chuck Atkins, the recently retired sheriff, who now spends much of his day working with his church and helping his ailing mother, is a mix of optimistic and frustrated. He remains baffled by the county’s takeover, but said he wants to support staff no matter what.
“I really do hope this is, in the end, better for the jail employees,” he said.
High turnover, financial issues
Last February, when Clark County patrol deputies faced an arduous season of bargaining for a new contract, a pair of them wanted to make a spectacle.
In the rain, they assembled and hoisted up makeshift billboards along busy roads. The white posterboard showed both a masked robber peeking into a home and a cynical message to drivers: The Clark County Sheriff’s Office is understaffed and you are unsafe.
Weeks later, jail deputies sent their own warning with a letter. Their staffing crisis had saddled them with consecutive 16-hour shifts and heaps of mandatory overtime. The jail was a standing liability, they wrote.
Atkins oversaw a tumultuous period for the sheriff’s office. To say nothing of the agency’s controversies while enforcing the law, — multiple police shootings have led to multiple lawsuits — the jail has been financially precarious for years.
The 68-year-old often vented his agency was the least funded in the Portland metropolitan area. Its annual budget in 2022 was $68 million, a little more than half of sheriff’s budget in similarly-sized Clackamas County, Oregon.
Atkins blames the Clark County Council for refusing to ask taxpayers for more money.
“I believe in my heart that the council is so conservative that they always vote down any agreement to increase money,” Atkins said in an interview. “They’re scared to do it.”
Deputies sought higher-paying jobs elsewhere, he said. The sheriff’s office couldn’t offer as much money to new recruits as neighboring cities and counties.
“When we would get to some of those people, they’d already been contacted by the city (of Vancouver) and offered more money,” Atkins said. Even people who showed initial interest, he said, would back out after looking at other offers.
Atkins points to the jail building as evidence of the council’s timidity around taxes. The 120,000-square-foot labyrinth of steel doors and yellow-painted concrete — opened in 1984 — has long been slated for an overhaul.
In the last decade, the county has considered multimillion-dollar upgrades to the jail. But the major investments never came.
“It’s not just the sheriff’s office. Public works, the prosecutor, you name it: If it’s county-run, we have worked with less pay than most,” he said.
The county’s stunted recruiting efforts did, however, plant the seeds for Atkins’ controversial decision to increase new hire pay. The sheriff’s office had about $4 million in unspent salary dollars sitting there. Unused, it would go right back into the county’s general fund.
Atkins recalled the blowback — some from his own staff, some from other higher-ups at the county.
“They came to me and chewed me up one side and down the other,” Atkins said. “I politely told them I was not going to stop. I was only here for three more months. This is the only way I’m getting people in the door.”
Bryan Pilakowski, then-president of the corrections deputies’ guild, wasted little time raising alarms. He was already walking to the county administration office shortly after the new hires email landed.
“Everyone was immediately on the phone with Bryan like, ‘This has got to stop,’” said guild treasurer Cindi Morrow. “And he said, ‘I’m already on my way across the street.’”
Mandatory overtime hours had been surging. In August, about 120 staff would clock more than 2,900 hours of overtime, according to county payroll data. Deputies later described their exhaustion after consecutive 16-hour shifts by saying they didn’t feel safe being behind the wheel for the drive home.
While jail deputies welcomed hiring more people, they also had just signed a contract. Experienced deputies bristled at the idea of having to train better-paid newbies.
Ninety minutes after the email arrived, Pilakowski forwarded Chapman’s email to County Manager Kathleen Otto.
It took Otto almost a month before she addressed the issue in writing. She warned the sheriff that the pay increases could sink morale.
“It would have been nice to actually have this conversation prior to the email being sent out to your employees,” Otto wrote. However, she added, she believed the sheriff had good intentions.
Otto made veiled references to past disputes within the county.
“You are not a separate agency — you are part of the county,” Otto wrote. “Please stop pointing fingers, blaming, creating a narrative that creates divisiveness and please do what you are saying you are doing — communicate, collaborate, and find solutions.”
The pay raises did work somewhat, sheriff’s office officials said. Fourteen people took jobs with the new pay in the patrol department. The policy was a wash at the jail: one new person did get hired, the corrections guild said, but the deputy training him quit.
By the time Otto had sent her email to Atkins, she and her staff were already setting the stage to take the jail away from the sheriff’s control.
County jail blues
One Saturday in late August, Pilakowski saw a fight at the jail that required staff to take an inmate to the hospital. He had been noticing more injuries lately, he said, more black eyes and bruises.
“Inmates do not respect the corrections deputies anymore in general,” Pilakowski wrote to Otto at 10:30 p.m., after a long shift. “They notice the short staff and long hours and they make statements about it.”
As the guild had said months prior in their public letter, he worried about injuries and raised the specter of liability.
“Fights are becoming more frequent,” he wrote. “How long does this luck hold out for us? Who is it that gets hurt?”
Data about fights and incidents at the jail was not readily available by press time, but a concern about a rise in violence at the jail has been shared by an array of stakeholders over the months, from jail deputies to defense attorneys.
The facility’s day-to-day woes were no secret, according to deputies and email records. Jail staff regularly flagged emails about broken windows and malfunctioning doors. When the pandemic hit, sheriff’s office officials said, the proportion of inmates charged with violent crimes grew larger.
The jail also held more inmates than recommended. It averaged about 427 inmates at a time in 2022. The recommended populace is 350. Jail staff had some inmates sleeping on mattresses in interview rooms.
Otto toured the jail for herself in March on invitation from the guild. Deputy County Manager Amber Emery and Human Resources director William Winfield visited the jail that summer.
“I left sick to my stomach,” Emery told OPB in a recent interview. “There was a part of me that, when I left, I said I cannot not do something.”
Records obtained by OPB show county officials started doing homework on communities where jails and the sheriff’s office have divorced. Otto and Emery made calls to the Spokane County Jail. Emery reached out to the South Correctional Entity, a jail jointly owned by multiple cities in southern King County.
Meanwhile, Otto continued to meet routinely with elected councilors in one-on-one meetings. Otto held multiple meetings simply described as “Jail.”
The county manager said some of those meetings were to discuss transitioning the jail to a new department, while some were discussions about other topics, such as staffing levels.
On Sept. 15, Atkins told OPB that he had just learned from Otto about the plan to create the Jail Services Department.
The former sheriff reiterates today that he was blindsided, but he wasn’t without a clue. Once, in early September, another jail called his staff about an upcoming meeting that the sheriff’s office knew nothing about.
“They called my HR (staffer) talking about the meeting we’re going to have tomorrow,” Atkins recalled. “And she said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
While the Clark County Jail Services Department is official, department heads and the sheriff’s office are still untangling.
John Horch, the newly-elected Clark County Sheriff, told OPB that the transition is going well. The two departments are ironing out policies around how inmates are to be extradited, as well as how to handle certain warrants, among other things.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a big divide with relationships,” Horch said. “We’ve been meeting on a regular basis so that when they started on Jan. 1, it wasn’t some big Y2K moment.”
The department is led by David Shook, a former Oregon sheriff’s deputy in Washington County. He ran for Clark County sheriff last fall, but failed to make it past the primaries.
How Shook landed this new role making $99,000 annually remains unclear. Records of his emails and correspondence didn’t show any official sit-downs with county leadership. Shook and other jail administrators were not available for interviews by publication time.
Shook is joined in leadership by Joe Barnett, a holdover from the sheriff’s office days, who is making $131,000 in salary; and Pilakowski, who is no longer guild president and now makes $88,000 as the manager of jail operations.
Jail deputies have noticed some changes. According to Morrow, the union treasurer, deputies were eager to get new uniforms. The uniforms breathe better, she said, and are scrubbed of the word “sheriff.” Jail staff are also getting new badges, with an outline of the county courthouse.
While those are small, incremental changes, Morrow said, they are good for morale.
“The further we get away from the sheriff’s office, the happier I am,” Morrow said. “I just feel lighter coming to work. There’s someone who cares about the work product.”
Beyond the uniforms, the county has already shown a willingness to spend more. In November, county officials approved a plan to give across-the-board 5% pay raises to jail staff. The move also bumped salaries for people with degrees and are firearms certified.
The raises helped, said new guild president Charlie Jarrell, but it’s difficult to say how they will affect recruitment.
“That’s my main focus. Our No. 1 priority is to work with administration to try and get our numbers up,” Jarrell said. “Right now, everything seems like a restricted labor market. It’s just a little early to tell.”
The jail building still looms as a major obstacle for the new leadership, as well. Past studies have estimated that upgrading the jail will easily cost tens of millions of dollars. Morrow noted that the ventilation system is faulty, there aren’t enough bathrooms, and chairs at deputies’ workstations are frequently broken.
The county is hoping new tax revenues coming in could help. In August, voters approved a sales tax that will bring roughly $7 million a year to the county.
The county also plans to spend federal stimulus cash toward the jail. Otto and Emery said they are currently seeking to contract an architect and engineer to take yet another look at ways to expand and remodel.
Emery and Otto added that they plan to keep talking with the local cities about the jail’s future.
“It’s a countywide lens and a countywide service – it needs to work for all,” Emery said.