Kitsap sheriff's race pits experience vs. academic and leadership credentials




  • In US
  • 2022-09-30 13:00:15Z
  • By Kitsap Sun
Kitsap County voters will weigh in on who they want to be sheriff during the Nov.
Kitsap County voters will weigh in on who they want to be sheriff during the Nov.  

The race for Kitsap County sheriff offers voters a stark contrast, with one candidate emphasizing his three decades in the office and the other emphasizing his academic and leadership credentials despite having no experience as a law enforcement officer.

John Gese, 61, of South Kitsap, running as a Democrat, was appointed from undersheriff to sheriff a year ago by county commissioners after former Sheriff Gary Simpson retired midterm. 

"I'm in a unique position in my career, and with my experience and background I could really help lead this agency," Gese said. "And we're going through a generational change right now."

Rick Kuss, 44, of Central Kitsap, running as a Republican, retired from the Navy in April after serving 24 years and rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.

Though Kuss has never made an arrest or investigated a crime, he served as a police explorer in high school and while in the Navy earned a master's degree in criminal justice, giving him insight and ideas on how to use data to improve service and reduce crime. He is working on a Ph.D. in criminal justice leadership through Liberty University.

Rick Kuss (left) and John Gese (right).
Rick Kuss (left) and John Gese (right).  

"I'm really good at leading people, and instilling vision and having other people kind of like take that on their own as well and become leaders," Kuss said.

The office is trying to fill vacancies for deputies, even offering hiring bonuses. When asked why not work as a deputy first and learn the culture of the office he wants to lead, Kuss said the office requires new leadership immediately.

"The need for Kitsap to have a change is now and with my leadership experience I feel like I've been training for this moment all my life," Kuss said. "And it just seems like it's all fallen together for me to run for sheriff."

Largest agency in Kitsap

The Kitsap County sheriff, with a $171,000 annual salary, leads the county's largest law enforcement agency, overseeing patrol deputies and detectives responsible for crimes occurring in communities outside tribal land and the county's four cities. The largest communities served by the office are Silverdale and Kingston, but the service area also includes Seabeck, Olalla, Manchester, Brownsville and Hansville.

Additionally, the sheriff runs the county's jail, which before the COVID-19 pandemic housed about 480 inmates.   

Officials dropped the jail population at the onset of the pandemic to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among inmates, but the office did not impose a vaccine mandate on employees.

Kuss agreed with the decision to not impose a mandate.

"I would openly welcome anyone that was relieved from duty from another agency into the sheriff's office," Kuss said.

Gese said though he is vaccinated, the decision was made by Simpson and him to not impose a mandate, believing it would have resulted in deputies leaving the office.

"We would've lost staff when we were already short-staffed," Gese said. "The trade-off there was a little bit too much for us."

The budget for the agency, set by county commissioners, amounts to about $47.4 million in 2022. This pays for its 270 employees, which includes about 125 law enforcement officers and about 90 corrections officers.

First election for both candidates

It's the first election for both Kuss and Gese, and so far they have raised almost the same amount of campaign money, with Kuss raising $53,100 and Gese raising $53,800, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records.

Donations to Kuss' campaign suggest grassroots-level support, with small donations coming from individuals making up most of his war chest, though Gese has garnered endorsements from local leaders and received $500 from the Suquamish Tribe.

Kuss donated about $13,000 out of his own pocket, with $30,100 coming from more than 200 individuals and groups.

In comparison, Gese donated $36,800 to his own campaign and received $8,400 from about 60 individuals and groups.

The county political parties are supporting their respective candidates, though when Gese was appointed last year by commissioners to replace Simpson, local Democrats ranked him second to Sgt. Brandon Myers.

Johanna Baxter, chairwoman of the Kitsap County Democrats, said the party itself was not critical of Gese.

"It was more that everybody was really impressed with what Brandon brought forth," Baxter said.

Commissioners were unanimous in appointing Gese and indicated they picked him to ensure continuity within the office. Commissioner Ed Wolfe, the lone Republican commissioner, has endorsed Gese's election bid over fellow Republican Kuss.

That Kuss has never worked as a law enforcement officer is not a concern for Juliana McMahan, chair of the Kitsap County Republican Party.

"We are not in the wild west," McMahan said. "The sheriff's job is not going around enforcing laws, the sheriff's job is an administrative and leadership position."

Using data to fight crime

Kuss is campaigning on concerns about rising crime and is proposing marshaling the office's resources in a methodical way, something he learned in his master's program through Michigan State University called "proactive policing." Kuss also has a bachelor's degree in computer engineering technology.

"Proactive policing is basically prior to a crime occurring, crime reduction occurs," he said.

That would include "hot spot policing," where the office analyzes data of where crimes are taking place and increases police presence at those locations.

It also includes analyzing periods of a day or week when crimes are being reported and then increasing police presence during those times. It also can be as simple as when deputies park their cars to write reports, they park them in an area to serve as a deterrent to speeding drivers.

The union that represents deputies, the Kitsap County Deputy Sheriff's Guild, endorsed Gese and wrote in a social media post that the office has been employing similar tactics since 2016, but Kuss said it appears to him that his language has been co-opted.

"Back in May, I mentioned my platform is proactive policing and now suddenly the word has come up from the sheriff's office," he said. "And I don't think they understand what proactive policing is."

Critical of endorsements

Kuss said that Gese's endorsement of local state lawmakers shows Gese is out of step with the mainstream and that Kuss is the moderate in the race.

Those lawmakers include state Sen. Emily Randall and state Rep. Tarra Simmons, Democrats from Bremerton, who supported the police reform measures in the wake of George Floyd's murder that have been blamed for increasing crime.

Kuss said Randall and Simmons voted for laws that made law enforcement's job more difficult.

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Though Kuss promotes himself as being on the forefront of law enforcement practices, he was unfamiliar with the Kitsap County Critical Incident Response Team, or KCIRT, the multi-agency force that investigates officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths. The team has grown considerably in size and now includes Clallam County agencies.

The office has alternately been the subject of KCIRT investigations and led them, including when it headed the investigation into the 2019 shooting death of Stonechild Chiefstick by a Poulsbo police officer.

Sheriff is independent of prosecutor

Kuss also took aim at Prosecutor Chad Enright, a Democrat who is supporting Gese's election bid. Kuss said he met with a former legal advisor to the sheriff's office who told him an "obstacle" he will encounter is the sheriff's office believes it works for the prosecutor, a culture he said he would change.

"There's this mentality, if the prosecutor won't prosecute these crimes, then the sheriff's office is not going to enforce these crimes. And that's where lawlessness comes into place," Kuss said.

In a response to follow-up questions, Kuss said he would arrest every person where probable cause exists for committing a crime.

"If the county prosecutor does not end up charging them, then I will keep track of the number of criminals he has let go and make the public aware of this information to hold him accountable since he was elected by the people," Kuss wrote in an email.

Kuss clarified that the sheriff's office legal advisor he met with was a seatmate on an airplane with whom he struck up a conversation. Kuss said he does not recall that person's name.

In response to Kuss' statement, Enright said his office files charges on more than 70% of non-felony referrals from law enforcement and that the office is on pace to file nearly 4,000 misdemeanor cases in 2022. The office's charging standards are posted online.

"If someone is suggesting that we have a policy to not file misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges, they are either reckless with the facts, or unaware of what is actually happening in the justice system," Enright wrote in an email.

Wants good relations

Kuss is a part of the "constitutional sheriffs" movement, which is particularly focused on protecting gun rights and has been labeled by critics as right-wing extremism. Its philosophy holds that sheriffs, part of the executive branch of government, have the authority to decide the constitutionality of laws and whether they should be enforced.

→ Q&A: Sheriff candidates weigh in on sales taxes, precinct plans

→ More: Kitsap sheriff candidate Rick Kuss's Fourth of July float goes viral on TikTok, draws backlash

"Let's say the governor hypothetically makes a mandate or a law that is not constitutional and directs that law enforcement enforce that, that's when the sheriff should stand up and say, 'That's not being enforced in my county,'" Kuss said.

Kuss said he would consult with the office's legal advisors before making such a decision. Though sheriffs have some discretion on how they enforce the law, the power to decide if a law is constitutional is typically reserved for the judicial branch.

Kuss said the "right-wing extremist" label is inaccurate for the movement and himself, though he touts the endorsement of Joe Arpaio, a lightning rod former sheriff from Arizona convicted of contempt of court but pardoned in 2017 by former President Donald Trump.

Kuss said he would work with other elected leaders, including Enright, who is running unopposed for a second term.

"It's not like the relationship that I would have, even though we're opposed on issues, wouldn't be just like, I'm blatantly turning my back," Kuss said. "I want to have a very good working relationship with him."

Continuing work of previous sheriffs

Gese, who served as undersheriff for seven years and started as a deputy in 1991, said he wants to continue the work of former sheriffs Simpson and Steve Boyer, though he said the office is dealing with many new challenges.

COVID-19, upheaval over the murder of George Floyd and subsequent police reform measures implemented by state lawmakers have heaped dramatic change on how police officers do their jobs, Gese said.

He has met with local lawmakers, including Randall, and has advocated for changes in the reform laws, such as laws restricting police pursuits.

"I see this endorsement process as a way to build a partnership with those who are willing to give an endorsement to work together on issues of public safety," Gese wrote in an email responding to follow-up questions. "The endorsement does not mean that we may always agree on every issue regarding public safety and law enforcement but we do agree to work together on those issues and they will allow me to advocate for those important issues facing the sheriff's office and local law enforcement."

Gese compared criminal justice to an ecosystem that includes courts, jails, prisons, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the Legislature.

"If there's a problem in one area, it can cause problems in the other area," Gese said.

He said the office adopted policies to target high crime areas, including how shifts are staffed, which he called "evidence-based policing."

"Evidence-based policing is, again, something that we looked at quite a long time ago," Gese said. "Essentially it's a pretty simple concept: You put people where the crime is."

Office fell behind on body cameras

The office has fallen behind almost all other Kitsap law enforcement agencies in adopting body cameras, technology that was not in place when in 2020 a deputy shot and killed David Pruitte, an unarmed man in mental crisis.

A Poulsbo police officer is shown wearing a body camera in this Kitsap Sun file photo.
A Poulsbo police officer is shown wearing a body camera in this Kitsap Sun file photo.  

Without body cameras, deputies use their cell phones to gather evidence for use in court. Gese said the office is on track to outfit deputies with the cameras, and though supply chain issues may set back the timeline, he hopes to have them in place by the first half of 2023.

The Kitsap County Jail has been the scene of multiple deaths and in one case serious disability when in 2017 a woman in mental crisis was able to hang herself twice within 24 hours. When asked what could be done to reduce jail deaths and lawsuits against the county that result from the deaths, Gese said the office was working with the jail's medical and mental health contractors.

"We see a lot more folks in jail now that have those mental health issues, addiction issues, medical issues," Gese said. "So it's a very, very delicate population that we deal with out there. We're always looking at our procedures."

Training issues

In another incident from 2020, corrections officers were found to have killed a combative murder suspect during a struggle using a restraint device. The KCIRT investigation found corrections officers were improperly trained on the device, called a restraint chair.

Gese said the office began an audit of the use of the chair, as well as the use of crisis cells in the jail - single occupancy, padded cells - and has adopted another restraint device less restrictive than the chair.

"We made sure we were training consistently because one thing that we were criticized for is that our training was inconsistent," Gese said. "So we developed the training, made sure it was consistent, made sure everybody had that training."

As part of another incident involving training, over a lawsuit that stemmed from deputies jailing a political activist on July 4, 2019, who refused to remove his signs from a park in Kingston, the office agreed to institute First Amendment training for deputies.

FILE — Robin Hordon with one of his homemade political signs.
FILE — Robin Hordon with one of his homemade political signs.  

"We've designed the training and we've implemented the training," Gese said. "And that was part of the agreement when we settled the case so that we would train and change our policies and make sure our policies matched what the law was."

Sheriff need not be a cop

Though there is no legal requirement for a sheriff to be a law enforcement officer, Gese said it's important for a sheriff to have the knowledge that comes from the job.

"It would be extremely hard to do the job well without having at least some background," Gese said. He noted that the office regularly hires people with college degrees - he has a degree in sociology from Western Washington University and worked in insurance prior to becoming a deputy. But they all start as road deputies and complete the same training. "I know each job and I know the responsibilities of each job."

This article originally appeared on Kitsap Sun: Kitsap sheriff election pits experience vs. leadership credentials

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