Police Sheriff Interview: Sheriff Mark Nelson Shares Advice on How to Become A Sheriff’s Deputy and Challenges and Changes in the Profession

On August 23rd, Criminal Justice Degree Schools interviewed Sheriff Mark Nelson of Cowlitz County, Washington to learn first hand about a law enforcement career and what it is like to be the elected Sheriff and head of Sheriff’s Office. This is the first of a series of such interviews, as we believe that those looking for a career as a sheriff’s deputy or police officer career will learn from those making hiring decisions. Topics covered include the value of a post-secondary or criminal justice degree and tips to improve your odds of getting hired.

Sheriff Mark Nelson

Sheriff Mark Nelson

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
How long have you been in Cowlitz County, WA (gateway to Mt St Helens) and how long have you lived in the area?

Sheriff Nelson:
My father was 3-term sheriff in Cowlitz County. I was born and raised here. I’ve lived here in Cowlitz County my whole life.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
Were you always in law enforcement and when did you first consider this role?

Sheriff Nelson:
My family has now had two Sheriffs and one police chief. As noted, my dad was elected to 3-terms as sheriff in Cowlitz County (note: Sheriff Nelson’s father, Les Nelson, was the Sheriff during the eruption of Mt St. Helens and Sheriff Mark Nelson was a reserve deputy at the time — a topic for another interview due to the number of stories, but they both witnessed a lot during and after the eruption). My brother Wayne retired from the City of Kelso, Washington as Police Chief after a thirty-five year career. I started in ’77 as reserve deputy and served in that role until I became a full-time officer in ’84 in the City of Longview — worked there for seven years and now in sheriff’s office twenty years. I will be here at least another four years as I am running unopposed (Sheriff is an elected position although deputy Sheriffs are hired like other law enforcement officers).

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
Could you give me a quick background on the challenges you face in your department today and some changes you have faced?

Sheriff Nelson:
Today’s greatest challenge is budgetary with money tightening due to the recession. While we have been able to replace those positions lost to attrition, we have not gained ground significantly with personnel since ’78 — 43 deputies then and now we are at 45. There has not been great growth in our sheriff’s office (we fill positions after attrition), but some of our local cities are growing — their police departments are growing slowly with population; but our calls for service are also still increasing. I have had to deploy some detectives and personnel to do other duties, such as monitor sex offenders (so that has taken some budget). At one time we had other positions but we had to cut them to reduce the budget.

There are other things that have changed. Technology changes are something we are forced to keep pace with due to adoption of changes or improvements in other agencies. For example electronic ticketing and reporting are becoming required just to properly process tickets. Sometimes there is state or federal money to help defray the costs and sometimes there is not.

Today there is better sharing of information — same records management system (all but state patrol) in our area. The benefit is a more holistic view of someone you are stopping or investigating. As another example, we deployed mobile data terminals in vehicles with Homeland Security assistance, but there are ongoing costs to maintain and update these systems that we have to pay out of our budget. So technology is good and necessary, but it takes dollars from our budget to deploy and maintain and the budget is tight now.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
Is there any advice you would give to someone who wanted to be in this field?

Sheriff Nelson:

Sheriff Les Nelson

Sheriff Les Nelson 1975-1986

Here is what I share with those deputy applicants during the interview process: You don’t pursue this job for the money. You do it because you care about people and want to serve. If you come in for other reasons, you will be disappointed and may burn out. It can even lead to bitterness. I know people who got into law enforcement twenty + years ago and got locked in and have stayed with it and it has taken a toll on these people. But I also know others who have served in a law enforcement career just as long, and they care about people, sacrifice for the community and appear to me satisfied with their careers.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
What are some hiring challenges you face?

Sheriff Nelson:
Finding the right people is the biggest challenge. We just hired three people but those positions had been open since last September (eleven months ago). I can’t lower my standards to get quality people. Oddly, we find a lot of people that would test for a law enforcement job and then during the background check process would be eliminated due to legal history or by contradicting themselves. While it took eleven months to find them, I just hired three great people. I never rush a hiring decision.

One item to note is that we look at social networks for prospective employees and so your readers should consider this; as candidates have been passed over based on the content they have chosen to post. Clearly with criminal justice careers you have to hold yourself to a high standard.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
What is the current educational requirement for a Deputy Sheriff?

Sheriff Nelson:
Currently the minimum requirement is high school diploma. It used to be an Associates Degree, but there were great candidates with high school diplomas that we didn’t want to miss. So a former Sheriff asked Civil Service to consider changing the requirement, and they did. Overall, I’m not sure it has not made a whole lot of difference, but what I like about a degree is the associated life experience and exposure to the real world. It shows discipline in reaching a goal. It makes a difference in the interview process — candidates can show more confidence.

I find that those with military backgrounds may have a slight edge due to discipline, working in a system with rank, etc.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
Why do you like your job?

Sheriff Nelson:
I grew up in a law enforcement family. This was a sought after career when I was growing up. My family valued helping and serving the community and that clearly was a major influence on me. I enjoy this part of the job.

There are opportunities in life to see the good or bad in people and I prefer to see the good (but I am certainly familiar with the other side). Also, law enforcement is exciting. No two days are the same. And sure, driving fast with the siren blaring has its moments!

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
Are there any great things about Cowlitz County you would like to share?

Sheriff Nelson;
Cowlitz County is the gateway to Mt St Helens. We have lots of rivers and river-related activities — both pleasure and business with the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers. There are ~100,000 people in Cowlitz County. We have a great community. Sure there are issues like anywhere. But it is a great place to live and grow up. We have rivers, rail and interstate. Weyerhauser, NORPAC and Longview Fibre each have major facilities here plus rail and three ports.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
Have you seen technology and the Internet change your approach to law enforcement in the last decade?

Sheriff Nelson:
The Internet has changed the way we communicate of course. We are always connected and can take advantage of the Internet for research — like the background checks on social networks mentioned earlier as well as the mobile data terminals and cross department data sharing.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools:
What are some things citizens can do to help law enforcement officers perform their duties in an area like yours?

Sheriff Nelson:
We have a great partnership with our community. The differences between a civilian and a cop are slim. For example, I’m sure you can likely recall a time when you have been driving down the road and noticed something odd. The difference is the officer checks out the oddities. People do notice but they don’t react like an officer. Now you don’t want to create paranoia, and you don’t want folks to be careless. Crimes are often committed out of opportunity. You can make it easy for the criminal by leaving a purse or package unattended, or windows open where bushes obscure visibility. There are simple ways the community can help itself by being aware, but not paranoid.

We also have a terrific volunteer force of Reserve Deputies, Search and Rescue and emergency services. It is a blessing. Nothing much has changed over time in people as people around here have always been willing to give. I recall times with flooding or other disasters where the people who stepped up to volunteer help are the same people that were often in trouble with law enforcement. What has changed is that there are now more organizations – reserves, search and rescue, dive, emergency management and social organizations. Communication is so much easier to allow people to organize. Perhaps liabilities force the need for such volunteer organizations as well. Regardless, we are blessed to have them.

As an aside, the interviewer is also from Washington State and coincidentally made a trip through Cowlitz County to Mount St Helens (after Mt Rainier National Park which is due just north) a month before this interview. It is a beautiful county and one should find a way to visit Mt St Helens if you get a chance – it is a place words can not describe.