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Originally published Friday, October 12, 2012 at 9:05 AM

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County to use overtime savings to hire 14 more sheriff's deputies

The King County Sheriff's Office plans to add 14 new deputies by the end of January.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Fourteen new King County sheriff's deputies will hit the streets by next summer, a vast change for the agency that has had layoffs and job freezes in recent years.

Sheriff Steve Strachan said Friday that the 14 will help fill 20 positions that had been left vacant to pay for overtime shifts. The remaining six patrol vacancies will continue to be unfilled.

"Our overall goal is to make the unincorporated areas of King County and the law enforcement we do there less reactive and more focused on problem-solving, working on target areas and on high-impact offenders," Strachan said during a news conference.

Strachan said that because the department has cut overtime costs drastically he is able to use the money to pay for the new positions. He credits his "zone plan," in which patrol shifts are shuffled between precincts, for the bulk of the savings.

He said the positions will also be paid for through savings from attrition, with the Sheriff's Office predicting between 20 and 50 retirements over the next two years.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West said she didn't know how much it would cost the agency to pay for 14 new deputies. She said the department's chief financial officer was not available for comment.

Metropolitan King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, who attended a news conference to announce the new hires, stressed the new positions would not require "any new money from the council, whatsoever."

The zone plan was one of Strachan's first big pushes after he took over as sheriff when Sue Rahr retired in March. The plan allows for deputies to be shifted between precincts to cover vacancies, thus reducing overtime.

Critics of the staffing model say that the scheduling change left several patrol sectors without coverage for hours at a time. Strachan denies that, saying that the Sheriff's Office had reduced staffing in White Center and Skyway overnight earlier this year, but the areas still had some coverage.

The Sheriff's Office, which has lost more than 150 positions since 2007, exceeded its overtime budget by about $800,000 in 2011. The office has about 1,000 employees.

King County Executive Dow Constantine praised Strachan's zone plan, calling it an innovative way to deal with the department's staggering overtime costs in a time of countywide reform.

"Sheriff Strachan and the Sheriff's Office staff are embodying that spirit of reform," Constantine said.

Because of the zone plan, deputies have had less frequent face-to-face interaction and infrequent roll-call meetings with colleagues working the same shift, Strachan said. They often wouldn't know where they would be patrolling until they arrived for work, he added.

With the new hires, Strachan said, he plans to first increase patrol levels in Skyway and East King County — areas that he says need additional police coverage.

Strachan plans to add four new deputies by the end of the month; five more in November; and an additional five in January. He expects all 14 will be through the academy and on patrol by summer.

When questioned whether the hiring announcement is timed to help him with his contentious election campaign against former sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart, Strachan said, "This is part of our normal budget process."

"Many, many times over the last couple of months, as I do my job as the sheriff, people will say, 'Is this because of politics?' No, I have to continue doing my job as sheriff."

Urquhart, in an email, said that with "reduced minimum staffing, of course he can save on overtime."

"But the result of this staffing plan is increased response times, less community policing, and less supervision by sergeants. Therefore the citizens are less safe, as are our deputies. A few more deputies won't make any difference if patrol minimums stay the same," Urquhart said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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