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CDN endorses: Tanksley in Whatcom County Sheriff’s race

Blaine police chief poised to become regional justice leader

A profile shot of Blaine Police Chief Donnell "Tank" Tanksley with his h ands together on the table next to his glasses.
Blaine Police Chief Donnell "Tank" Tanksley said if he is elected as Whatcom County's next sheriff, he would bring more community input into the office's decision making. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By CDN Editorial Board

Consensus can be rare in Whatcom County politics, but one evolving political reality seems clear: Residents want local law enforcement agencies to take new approaches to intersecting with the public, in ways beyond traditional policing roles.  

The Cascadia Daily News Editorial Board believes such fundamental change at the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is unlikely to occur without a change in top leadership. Electing current Blaine Police Chief Donnell “Tank” Tanksley is an opportunity to move confidently in that new direction. 

Tanksley, 55, earns CDN’s endorsement for the top law enforcement job in Whatcom County because of his broad experience, deep community connections, and a demonstrated understanding that the head of a forward-thinking sheriff’s department should focus on aggressive, but impartial, policing. 

“I think we really need to just get back to the basics of [being] real peace officers,” Tanksley told CDN’s editorial board. “Part of being a peace officer is community caretaking of people. That’s what really drives me.” 

With broad, international experience including military duty, large- and small-scale policing and extensive study and practice of police training, Tanksley is politically attuned to modern policing needs. 

Tanksley clearly has had his eye on the job being vacated by retiring veteran Sheriff Bill Elfo. He has wisely formed a network of local supporters who represent an unusually broad swath of political persuasions.  

Tanksley is poised to become something Northwest Washington sorely needs: A law-enforcement chief attuned to the changing demographics and modern-day needs of a growing community. Not just an effective cop, but a civic leader on issues of crime and justice.  

CDN believes this raises him above his opponent, career sheriff’s office veteran Doug Chadwick. The current undersheriff and three-decade department veteran is a competent, professional officer who undoubtedly would skillfully manage the complex tasks of a department providing police services to a massive geographic area.  

Our endorsement of Tanksley is less a rejection of Chadwick’s experience than a celebration of the opportunities presented by his opponent.  

Whatcom County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Doug Chadwick sitting at a desk with his hands together.
Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Undersheriff Doug Chadwick on Aug. 22 in Bellingham. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Both men are seasoned law enforcement officers. Both vow to uphold, without question, all laws enacted by voters and the state Legislature – sadly, something that cannot be said of sheriffs in some other Washington counties. 

They are in general agreement on many issues facing the department. Both embrace, to different degrees, new procedures and training for sheriff’s deputies faced with the challenges of knowing when connecting suspects with rehabilitative services is more appropriate than incarceration. They agree that replacement of the county’s decrepit jail is a front-burner crisis, and that a new facility should be at least as focused on rehabilitation and community reentry as on punishment.  

But the depth of those convictions, and the degree to which they will be at the forefront of sheriff’s office leadership, can be predicted by their experiences — a distinction made clear in interviews with the two candidates.  

Chadwick is a veteran, competent cog in a machine that has hummed along for decades under the traditional leadership of Elfo. Tanksley, to the depth of his personal and professional roots, is a reformer. 

Chadwick may get it, but Tanksley has lived it.  

In describing his early motivation to enter law enforcement, Tanksley often recounts his experience as a young Black man growing up in Ferguson, Missouri, where a racially motivated encounter with police left him convinced, at 19, that better, more “just” ways should be found for policing.  

Tanksley seeks to modernize the sheriff’s office, better utilizing data systems to more effectively fight crime. He sees a concerted role for the sheriff’s office in reducing homelessness and connecting offenders, when appropriate, with existing and expanded treatment and jail-diversion programs. 

Critically, he has the potential to be the strong leader Whatcom has long needed in managing a new justice center/jail facility — a sheriff’s office responsibility — that stands as more of a source of community pride than shame. His career focus, he says, has been on breaking entrenched cycles of incarceration and recidivism. Those goals have been embraced by a broad spectrum of Whatcom County voters. 

Tanksley, who said he believes the vast majority of current sheriff’s office staff to be capable professionals, also shows potential to emerge as a more effective, compassionate boss. He lists expanded mental health training for deputies as a priority for his administration. He considers a successful police force to be one that evolves with the needs of both societies and officers. 

His 30-year professional career path, which includes stints as a cop in St. Louis, assistant chief at Western Washington University and chief at Portland State University, demonstrates the sort of diversity and flexibility that would benefit a department that seems in many ways stuck in time. 

In this case, the outsider’s credentials, stated convictions and natural gravitation toward a community leadership role make him an easy choice. Smart voters will embrace this opportunity. 

CDN endorsements are made by consensus of the CDN Editorial Board: Publisher Cynthia Pope and Executive Editor Ron Judd. Dean Wright, the newspaper’s ethics consultant, acts as a nonvoting adviser and facilitator. Look for endorsements for the county executive, county council at-large, Bellingham mayor, and the Public Health, Safety, and Justice Sales and Use Tax, online this week and in a special Voter Guide published on Oct. 13. Read more about the endorsement process here.

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