Newly elected Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders began in his new role on Tuesday, Jan. 3 after he defeated former sheriff John Snaza in the general election.
Just two weeks after he started in his new position Sanders said he found the inspiration to be involved in law enforcement during his childhood. He said law enforcement must run in his family, as his mother was a dispatcher and his father was a corrections deputy.
Sanders said he got his first big break once he returned to Washington from school, as he was hired as a community service officer in Lacey.
“By the grace of God they hired me, and I don’t know why, but I never turned back after that,” Sanders said. “I did the boring, dirty stuff of police work. After two months, I knew that I wanted to do the whole thing and become a cop. This is where my passion is.”
Sanders was later hired on with the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. He served for six years as a deputy sheriff before he was elected sheriff.
Sanders said that in 2020, George Floyd’s death served as a turning point for police reform laws. He said that some of the newly instituted laws are “really good” with good intentions.
“A lot of police departments were already not using tear gas. We weren’t using choke holds, we didn’t use tear gas,” Sanders said. “We were already doing a lot of what these new laws required.”
Sanders added the department now has the ability to go after bad cops, thanks to the state government. Funding was given to the criminal justice training center to create a task force for getting “bad” officers decertified.
While Sanders believes some of the reform was good, he referred to the use of force bill as “going too far.”
He said the verbiage in the bill was too strong and noted it prevented the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office from going to mental health calls until it was fixed in the most recent short session of the Legislature.
The pursuit law approved in 2021 restricts the ability of officers to pursue suspects in an auto chase. Sanders said that is a huge issue. He said there are currently matching bipartisan laws in the House and Senate regarding police pursuits. Sanders plans on testifying in front of the House to address the issue.
“When they change these laws, it happens right here in Olympia, our backyard. I plan to be pretty active in the state Legislature,” he said.
While Sanders and the sheriff’s office aren’t fans of the pursuit law, he feels the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office wasn’t doing everything they could to maximize the pursuit effort for deputies.
“I didn’t like that we had policies that were more restrictive than state law, yet we were blaming state law. To me, that’s a conundrum and hypocritical,” Sanders said. “One of the first things I did at midnight when I became sheriff was drop the pursuit threshold for what we can chase, to whatever the state allows for and we’ve seen more pursuits and people going to jail as a result.”
Sanders added, “If we’re going to be critical of what the state is doing, we need to be doing everything we can on our side and then coming back to them and saying we’re trying everything and it isn’t working. To me, we sound like crybabies when we don’t do everything we can and still blame the state.”
Aside from different reform related issues, Sanders said that the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office wants to institute a two-deputy domestic violence team and embed them in the patrol division.
“I don’t want our domestic violence team to be detectives, or to be doing desk work,” Sanders said. “I want them to be an active, out in the community team that is primarily focusing on felony level and power and control dynamic domestic violence incidents.”
Sanders added the sheriff’s office is also working on getting two narcotics dogs at the jail.
Perhaps the biggest issue Sanders will face in his early stages as sheriff is recruiting and retention within the office.
“We lost 16 or 17 deputies in one year and you’re talking about a patrol division that only has 34 active deputies. In the last year, we’ve lost half of our working deputies and it isn’t sustainable,” Sanders said. “We’ve really upped our recruiting game. I need young, bright people to come work for the sheriff’s office.”
With the start of every new position comes challenges. Sanders said one of the biggest struggles he’s faced as sheriff was not having a transition period into his new role.
Sanders said he wasn’t allowed to send agency-wide emails until Jan. 1, which put him under a lot of pressure to put out a lot of information. He said the struggles were temporary and noted his team hit the ground running.
“I have a fantastic team around me. They’ve made things so easy for me,” Sanders said. “I don’t deserve much credit at this point. They’ve really done a great job.”
Sanders said the lack of communication with Snaza fueled some of his difficulties as he started his new role.
“My position at first was ‘this kind of sucks’ because I’d really like (Snaza) to let me know where I’m coming in at,” Sanders said. “I’m in a position where I know everything from the ground level, but things are different at the executive level. It’s not that I can’t catch on, because we hit the ground running, but it would’ve been nice to have that transition.”
Sanders added he has a lot of respect for Snaza.
While Sanders was campaigning, he emphasized the importance of working with cities within Thurston County. He later told the Nisqually Valley News the Yelm Police Department’s relationship with the sheriff’s office is great and has historically been strong.
The Yelm Police Department also mirrors any policy changes at the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, which allows them to work in conjunction, according to Sanders.
Sanders is a believer of ease of access to the public. He routinely provides updates on his Facebook page “Sheriff Sanders” to get information out to residents.
“I don’t like the idea that you can’t just reach out and contact your elected official, especially at the local level,” Sanders said. “I try to respond to people and engage with them, and I think it makes people feel more of an interpersonal level with their sheriff.”
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