A recent committee meeting on homelessness in Pierce County highlighted the impacts low staffing at the sheriff's department has on addressing homelessness.
Pierce County Sheriff Deputy Jeff Papen told the Select Committee on Homelessness that – as homeless encampments see more incidences of shootings, homicides and missing persons – the county is struggling to respond to the increased calls for services.
Papen added that the Pierce County Sheriff's Department is one of the lowest staffed departments in the U.S.
There are 771 FTEs related to public safety in the county. The department’s law enforcement branch saw the number of positions drop from 414 FTEs in the 2022-2023 budget year to 402 set for the 2024-2025 budget year. For context, the neighboring King County, Washington state’s most populated county, has 1,125 positions in its sheriff's department.
Papen said that there was an increase in calls for service corresponding with the increase of encampments throughout the county on various kinds of properties.
“It was significant – we had several hundred types of calls that we couldn’t respond to,” Papen said in the committee meeting on Dec. 13.
The 2024-25 biennial budget for the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department is 9.9%, or $20.1 million, above the $224 million dedicated in the 2022-2023 budget. The budget provides funding for increased operational costs, including compensation, overtime and fleet services.
General fund budget reductions include 12 vacant Deputy Sheriff positions being closed, with the funding being reallocated to support the increase in costs.
Approximately $1.4 million in anticipated vacancy savings is budgeted to address severance costs. Two additional vacant deputy sheriff positions are being converted to other job classifications, including a legal assistant to support increased reporting requirements and an intelligence analyst to continue l functions no longer supported by Emergency Management federal grants, according to the budget.
The 2023 Point-In-Time count revealed 2,148 people living on Pierce County streets on a single night. That count also found a total of 6,500 connected to the county’s homeless response crisis system. The Pierce County 2024-2025 budget is allocating a total of $218.1 million on homelessness initiatives. This includes expanding treatment programs, supportive housing, and increasing units of temporary and permanent affordable housing.
The Center Square previously reported on gaps in shelter and supportive services to homeless people in local communities, causing other services to reach full capacity. Papen said that some homeless people he has talked to were willing to accept treatment, but would usually have to wait three weeks before being brought in.