By Kent Gray
Triplicate staff writer
Del Norte County's new sheriff elect said he will be reconnecting the department with the community after years of cumulative isolation.
Dean Wilson, currently a sergeant with the Crescent City Police Department, received the greatest margin of victory of any local election on Tuesday, defeating former-Sheriff Mike Ross 61.6 to 38 percent and 1,492 votes.
"The message I got from the people is they just wanted some changes in the Sheriff's Department," Wilson said as he relaxed at home yesterday afternoon. "They said they were disappointed with the trends that were set over the last few years and they were ready to see things done differently."
Wilson said he is ready to step into the sheriff's shoes at any time. Outgoing Sheriff Jim Maready announced he would step down early, taking effect yesterday at noon. Wilson said he is waiting for approval from the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors and must speak with Crescent City Police Chief Bob West before a date can be set. Wilson ran his campaign on some similar themes with Ross, namely providing a greater deputy presence in outlying communities. Wilson, however, said bringing that presence to Gasquet, Klamath, Smith River and Hiouchi will involve more than promising to post resident deputies in those communities.
"I visited 2,500 homes in Gasquet and Klamath during the primaries and another 1,500 during this election," Wilson said. "Their concern is they want some kind of representation out there. What I found talking to people is they would call for law enforcement and no one would respond for 20 or 30 minutes, and by that time the people (suspects) were gone. Also, there was a lot that was going on that was not reported because they felt the response wasn't fast enough to get the situation resolved. I'm hoping to change that," Wilson said.
In particular, the arson of Mountain School last year and the death of a boy playing chicken with cars on Highway 199 were incidents that Gasquet residents pointed to as evidence of a lack of law enforcement.
"I've got some long-range goals to reconnect with the communities and re-establish confidence," he said. "There are ways to rebuild trust and confidence and provide the service the people come to expect."
Part of Wilson's plan is to create substations in the communities using existing fire halls and having reserve officers available to take calls more quickly. Wilson said there have also been some lost opportunities to empower the communities to help themselves.
"There was an offer by the Smith River Rancheria for up to $10,000 to purchase a vehicle for the citizen's patrol and the sheriff's office refused it," he said. "They didn't want to get involved with taking money from casinos at that time ... I say the casinos are here, they're not going anywhere, and the community provides money for them.' If they are willing to give something back to the community I think we should be more than willing to accept it, so long as it doesn't compromise anything we are doing."
An equally important chore topping Wilson's list of things to do, he said, is reorganizing the department's top-heavy administration.
"There are many, many, personnel issues that need to be addressed that have an affect on each other," he said. "The department needs experience, and I think it has that now. But when you have a high turnover rate you lose all the training and experience you have built and you have to start all over again. When you are constantly in that cycle, long term, the quality of service you provide is far less than if you retained that personnel.
"The officers need to feel indispensible not disposable. Part of doing that is to give them back the responsibilities they should have in the first place."
One example Wilson provided exemplified the obstacles facing the deputies.
"They can't even tow away a vehicle without getting permission first because it's a command-position decision.' That's insanity," he said. "They have some extremely good personnel over there, Jim (Maready) did a very good job with the personnel he brought into the organization. I think I am blessed being able to go into that without having to spend time on that ... it's not a total scrapping and rebuilding problem."
Wilson said just the physical placement of the department's top administrators, adjacent to the sheriff's desk, is a barrier for them to perform their duties properly.
"The jail commander needs to be back in the jail. The patrol commander needs to be downstairs where the patrol really is operating out of. We've got to break down the walls that have built up that have caused communication problems.
"I will be eliminating the captain position because it is just another layer of administration another layer of inefficiency. If you had a bigger structure you might need that layer in there. But not here."
Finally, Wilson said he intends to open the department to greater communication with the outside world, enabling supervisors at every level to release information to the public about arrests and cases they are working on.
"There has been a progressive isolation over the years ... You walk into the lobby and there are two windows and two phones. A lot of the time there isn't even anybody behind the windows," he said. Although Wilson did not suggest any specific remedy for the department's lobby woes, he said it is a symptom of the barriers built around the department.
"Whether it's bulletproof glass, unmanned telephones or walls, it's just another division between the personnel and the people. I don't see any benefit to that."
Wilson's overall philosophy of keeping a tight connection with the public he serves is something he said he learned early on in his training.
"When I was in training, a friend told me, If you have friends that have nothing to do with law enforcement, keep them. Because they will help you stay grounded to the real world.' It's been nice going out and meeting people during the campaign because in law enforcement you don't always meet people at their best, whether they are victims of a crime or the suspects. You can become jaded over the years when all you meet are people in crisis. It's not the real world.
"Once you are disconnected from the public you lose perspective on what it is you do and why you're out there doing it."