Interview with Skamania Sheriff Dave Brown: How a Criminal Justice Degree Can Help Your Law Enforcement Career and Other Important Law Enforcement Job Tips

How long have you been a Sheriff in Skamania County?

I have been Sheriff for 8 years.

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

I started volunteering with the fire department in 1979 as a teenager. After the eruption of Mt St Helens (which is in Skamania County) there was big effort to do salvage logging in the blast zone. This supported EMS services with fees from that effort due to expected logging accidents. So, from 1982-1987, I was an EMT in this location. At that time, there were five deputies working the red zone. In working with them, I became interested in their job. Eventually, I went to Clark community college and then Washington State University and studied Criminal Justice. I eventually finished my degree while working. In 1987 I started as Deputy Sheriff in Skamania and served as a patrol deputy for nine years. In 1996, I moved to the detective unit until 1998. Then I was promoted to Chief Criminal Deputy – supervising patrol and detectives. I served in that capacity until 2003 when I was elected Sheriff of Skamania County. All tolled, I have been with the Skamania County Sheriff’s office for 23 years.

Was it challenging to go to an administrative role?

It was. I was a new Sheriff and this is always a time of change with new appointments. You have to respect the situation – as there are many law enforcement officers with 20+ years of experience. I relied on their experience and it all worked. What I did miss the most when I went into my role in the detective unit and then supervision and Sheriff was leaving the mountain – I come from a logging family who loves the outdoors (Sheriff Brown just returned from a 45-mile hunting trip in Mt Adams Wilderness area with friends and his brothers).

How did the Mt St Helen’s blast change the area?

I was 16 at the time of the 1980 eruption and was an EMT, but didn’t enter the blast zone. It really changed everything due to access restrictions. I did see areas in the blast zone after the blast with my father and it truly looked like a moonscape with all the ash.

How valuable has your criminal justice degree been for you?

As I noted, I was really influenced to pursue this career from my interaction with the Sheriff Deputies. When I went to college, I thought a criminal justice degree would provide the best opportunity for me to enter this profession. The degree does show you have applied yourself. It clearly is intended for those going into this profession, and is filled with relevant coursework including psychology and sociology. Psychology and sociology help you understand people and their behaviors. Then you can apply this in the actual work – for example on how economic cycles impact behavior.

Why do you like your job?

I love my job. The office of Sheriff is the oldest political office. It is the only elected law enforcement position in the United States. You are subject to the will of the voters – serving them. It really fits the foundational elements of what the country was founded upon. The electorate entrust their civil liberties to the Sheriff and his deputies. It is an enormous responsibility to uphold.

Does a Sheriff’s Department operate differently from a Police Department?

They operate much differently. Police Departments usually don’t operate the jail unless it is a very big city. Police Departments aren’t involved in civil process or in Search and Rescue. Our physical area is often vast versus a Police Department’s, which is confined to a city versus a county in our case. Washington State law recognizes the Sheriff as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the county, and that can be an interesting dynamic in a more populated county where you have some larger cities and police departments (Skamania’s population is only 10,000 with two small cities/towns).

Has Homeland Security impacted your Sheriff’s department?

Hugely. We have benefited by funding available. We have been able to put mobile data computers in cars upgrade our communications capabilities. There have been negatives associated with administrative overhead in reporting. But overall, it makes for better department with training and equipment and an enhanced response capability.

How is your budget situation?

We receive Federal timber payments due to the laws protecting the spotted owl and other endangered species which restrict heavy logging in National Forests. We have lost tax dollars due to the drop in logging. This Federal funding accounts for 35% of our budget, and those Federal payments are down. The timber subsidy is set to expire in a year and this could clearly have a big impact on us. So far we have avoided cuts.

Has downturn impacted area from a crime?

We have seen an increase in theft, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide. We have declining school enrollment. Things are still trending downward unfortunately.

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

Technology. I can remember just starting with computers. Now our ability to communicate and get information is a huge boon. For example, the impact on search for Search and Rescue from technology changed. Mostly, we are doing rescue and recovery and not as much searching as people use cell phones and GPS beacon devices.

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

Go to college. Get an education. Understand the law, the profession and our constitution so you understand your responsibility to the people and the trust you are granted – and to stay true to it. I think most understand this in law enforcement, but there are breaches you read about. When we interview people this topic is covered.

What are the current requirements for a Deputy Sheriff for education and otherwise?

21 years of age, high school or GED and license. That is statewide. But as mentioned, a college degree can set you apart.

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

For both Deputy Sheriffs and Corrections Officers:
1. Common sense
2. Ability to communicate – treat people with respect in interactions (knowing when to bend and not get too stern – defuses situations).
3. Being grounded outside the office – have people that balance you out and outside hobbies or you will get consumed by this career.

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

95% of Skamania County is National Forest. It is a great place to visit with The Mt Adams wilderness area, the Columbia Gorge, The Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount St. Helens, of course. There is great hiking, hunting and river recreation. In the winter, we have cross-country skiing and snow mobiling.

Author note: I have visited Skamania County at least 4 times – each visit bringing a lasting memory. There were two visits to Mt St Helens in 1997 and 2010 (latter with my family – a great car camping trip). Everyone should visit Mt St Helens. I also hiked to the top of Mt Adams and snowboarded down ~6,000 vertical feet on the south, non-technical face in 1997 and have been by the Columbia Gorge. Note: Skamania means swift water in a local Native American language.