Interview with Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo: The Value of a Criminal Justice Degree in Law Enforcement, Law Enforcement Career Tips and the Challenges of Managing a Border County

How long have you been a Sheriff?

I have been Sheriff since January 2003.

How did you get into law enforcement and how did your career evolve?

My interest in law enforcement was first sparked when I became a member of a Police Explorer post at age 16. I joined the Florida Department full-time when I turned 19 and was the youngest officer ever hired by the agency. I worked my way through the ranks and retired as a Captain/City Prosecutor to accept the position as Director of Public Safety/Police Chief in 1996. I remained in Blaine until assuming the position of Whatcom County Sheriff in 2003.

What roles in a Sheriff’s or Police Department would benefit from a Criminal Justice education?

Law enforcement and corrections officers face increasingly complex issues that require innovative solutions. A college degree arms officers with a broad perspective on a range of issues and helps them develop the critical thinking and analysis skills that are necessary to achieve success.

What degrees and training did you complete?

I hold a Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Criminal Justice as well as a Juris Doctorate. When I attended college in the 1970s and 1980s, online programs were not available. The expansion of online degree programs make higher education available to a wider range of people who otherwise would be limited by distances from campuses, work schedules and the day to day demands of family life.

Will a criminal justice degree make a difference in a law enforcement officer’s career?

I feel that the possession of a criminal justice degree will make a substantial difference in an officer’s career and provide him or her with a greater chance for success and opportunities for assignments and promotions.

Is it getting more complicated for officers?

The environments in which both law enforcement and corrections officers function are becoming far more complex. With the downturn in our economy, officers and agencies are expected to operate far more efficiently and incorporate technology, analysis and innovative solutions into their day-to-day operations. At the same time, officers are confronted with ever-involving case law and must be able to adopt techniques and procedures to new dictates of the courts.

You noted that Whatcom County has some unique characteristics due to its vast size that you have had to address.

Yes, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement, correctional and emergency management services to a county that is larger in size than either the states of Rhode Island and Delaware.  Some locations in our County are a two-hour vehicle drive from our main office – to ensure coverage in these areas; we provide housing to “Resident Deputies.” It is a rotational program. Oftentimes we get volunteers due to benefits of paid housing during the rotation.

How has Homeland Security changed what a Sheriff does?

Whatcom County is rather unique in terms of homeland security issues. We share a 110- mile land border with Canada and have experienced a nexus with terrorists traversing that border to do harm throughout our nation. Many areas of our border are in wilderness areas and present accessibility and communication issues. We have to drive through Canada for 27 miles to reach one of our communities. Aside from land border issues, we have 45 miles of coastline on Puget Sound and are responsible for the security of a ferry. We are further responsible number of vulnerable infrastructure that includes oil refineries, hydro-electric dams, fuel pipelines and an international airport.

What has been the biggest change in law enforcement since you started?

Over the past 37 years, there have been a lot of changes. The incorporation of technology, threats from terrorism and approaches to domestic violence cases are a few of the most notable.

Is there any advice you would give to someone who wanted to be in this field?

I would encourage them to keep their integrity – keep it intact. We demand the highest of ethical standards. One bad decision can eliminate you from a law enforcement or corrections career. We polygraph and conduct extensive background investigations on those seeking to enter our agency. If there are any questions as to a person’s integrity or ethics as evidenced by past conduct, we simply will not accept the person as a member of our agency.

Can you tell me what the top 3 things required to become a successful Deputy Sheriff and separately a corrections officer?

1. Integrity
2. Get a good broad education – develop communication skills / develop broad view of society and crime
3. This is not a 9-5 job. You have shift rotations and holidays. It is not conducive to family life easily. You have to make adjustments to be successful in your law enforcement or corrections career.

Are there any great things about your area you would like to share with our readers?

Whatcom County is one of the greatest communities in the US. We have a temperate climate. We have Mt Baker and the Cascade Mountains as well as the Sound. We are between two major cities – Vancouver BC and Seattle. Whatcom County is consistently rated one of the top place to retire (Bellingham is the biggest city in Whatcom County). We also have top notch access to higher education. Western Washington University in Bellingham has consistently been highly rated by US News annual school and university rating. Other educational opportunities exist at Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College and Trinity Western University’s Bellingham campus.