Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman unseated incumbent Mark Nelson last year in large part due to a campaign that promised to reforge relationships with other law enforcement and emergency response agencies that had been “damaged beyond repair,” according to Thurman.
Now, Thurman says, those lines of communication are open again, and he’s been working on projects ranging from a new county-wide Major Crimes unit to expedited deputy hiring and a reshuffled administrative staff, including the re-appointment of Chief Criminal Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig.
It’s been a “steep learning curve,” Thurman said, but previous sheriffs Mark Nelson and Bill Mahoney have worked hard to help him get up to speed.
In a continued tradition, Nelson left Thurman a letter for him when he took office on Jan. 1. Thurman described Nelson, who appointed him to chief criminal deputy after the election, as gracious and helpful throughout the process.
“I’m very thankful for the role he played in smoothing the transition,” he said.
In an interview with The Daily News on Friday, Thurman said there’s been a fresh start as he works with and learns from other departments.
“We’re getting along very well,” Longview Police Chief Jim Duscha said. “He’s very collaborative-minded. He just wants to work as part of the team.”
Duscha pointed to “simple things,” like Thurman covering priority calls for Longview during the police department’s annual dinner. Normally, Duscha said, the officers on swing shift don’t get a chance to eat before they’re pulled back onto the road.
“That type of thing happens every day, in an informal manner,” Thurman said. “I think that’s traditional throughout law enforcement in the country. You help each other out, balance the load.”
The sheriff’s office and county police departments are working on forming a county-wide Major Crimes unit, he said, to work on large-scale criminal investigations or uses of force by law enforcement.
Thurman said funding the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Drug Task Force is a priority even as state and national legal battles continue to tie up grant money.
“We’re kind of limping along, month to month,” he said. “But we look pretty good through the end of the year.”
And Thurman said he wants to improve community interaction by scheduling more school appearances, such as drunk driving awareness programs, along with community partnerships like the Brown Bag Day food donation event hosted by Bill and Patty Ammons of Castle Rock.
For all their differences, Thurman and Nelson both shared concerns over Initiative 1639, the 2018 ballot measure that created new restrictions on the storage of firearms and the sale of semiautomatic rifles.
Letters, phone calls and emails from across the county have poured in since Thurman joined several other Washington sheriffs in voicing opposition toward I-1639 and concern over its constitutionality, he said.
Thurman’s approach to the controversial gun control initiative mirrors many other sheriffs: “Wait and see.” He said he’s happy to see that there are court challenges against the initiative, including a major one filed by the National Rifle Association, and is “keeping an open mind” until the rest of the initiative goes into effect on July 1.
If the initiative remains law by then, he said he’ll continue to at least document reports of violations, and determine how best to comply with the law.
“The oath that we swear to is to uphold the laws and constitution of the state and the nation,” Thurman said. “What do you do when those are opposed? In our best judgement, the law doesn’t comport with the constitution. My position is that the constitution is a higher authority than laws.”
What does Thurman find unconstitutional? First, the new minimum age of 21 to purchase “semiautomatic assault rifles,” which went into effect Jan. 1. It’s vaguely defined, Thurman said, and “with a stroke of a pen,” takes away rights from an entire class of people.
Additionally, the definition of “semiautomatic assault rifle” the law cites is contained within the part of the initiative that doesn’t go into effect until July 1. So until then, Thurman said, “it’s not enforceable because it defines a class of firearms that is not in law until July 1.”
Thurman does support a provision in the initiative that allows prosecutors to charge gun owners whose unsecured weapons are used in a crime, which he said addresses a “gap in the law.”
He specifically referenced the 2017 death of Kelso 13-year-old Edgar Vazquez, who was accidentally shot and killed by his friend Dawson Dunn, 13, with an unsecured shotgun while the two were at Dunn’s grandfather’s home. The gun was left loaded and with the safety off in his grandfather’s bedroom. Dunn was ultimately sentenced to five months in juvenile custody for second-degree manslaughter; his grandfather faced no charges.
“I think in situations like that, where kids were in his house on a regular basis, all adults were absent from the home, an unsecured loaded firearm was used, (the shooting) was not intentional, (and) there is some form of injury or death, there should be some form of (criminal charges).”
Since taking office, Thurman has filled two of the five open deputy positions. Deputy Lemhi Blackburn, who was already in the hiring process, started in mid-January. And former Kalama Police Officer Caitlyn Neill joined the sheriff’s office Monday.
Thurman said he met with the county’s civil service division, which sets rules for personnel hiring and practices, to implement new rules to make hiring faster. (The sheriff’s office has used a written test in the past, Thurman said.) That includes creating a scored interview process for entry-level deputies, which Thurman said will bring more potential deputies in and get them acquainted earlier with the county. The new rules will also give slight preference to veterans, Thurman said.
“Here in two weeks, we hope to have 10 applicants sitting on the shelf,” Thurman said. “In the past, it’s taken about a month once we’ve lost somebody to get somebody back up to speed where we’re ready to start on the background (checks). ... It’s quite a bit more rigorous than I think (in) most places, but we do that to ensure the quality of people we have.”
And he said he’s been sitting down with each member of the sheriff’s office for “Hopes and Dreams” interviews, where he asks employees how they feel about the department, their careers, and what could be improved.
In addition to hires, Thurman has made new staff appointments: Darren Ullmann, who ran against Nelson for sheriff in 2014, took over as undersheriff in January. And Charlie Rosenzweig has returned to his position as chief criminal deputy after Nelson asked him to step down in October following his endorsement of Thurman. Rosenzweig intends to start transitioning into retirement in March. Long-time deputy Fred Taylor will be promoted to sergeant and Sgt. Dave Handy will become chief administrative deputy on April 1.
Thurman said he’ll finish the plans for policy updates Nelson started, including the county’s contract with Lexipol, a law enforcement consultant. Once those updates are finished in the summer, he said, he’ll move at least one of the sergeants assigned to policy updates to investigating crimes.
After about 50 days in office, Thurman said one of the more popular changes he’s made is allowing deputies to grow beards.
Outside of one year under former Sheriff Brian Pedersen, it’s the first time in decades that deputies have been allowed to grow out their facial hair beyond a goatee, he said. He said the change is to let deputies express themselves more and better reflect the community they serve.
“It’s something Longview and Kelso police do, and our people wanted to do it,” he said. “I tried it for a few weeks, (but) my wife said no.”