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Sheriff: Chadwick views inside knowledge of office, community as strength

Current undersheriff has 29 years at WCSO

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)
By Simone Higashi News Intern

Editor’s note: This is the first of two profiles of candidates for Whatcom County sheriff ahead of the November general election. Coming tomorrow: a profile of Donnell “Tank” Tanksley.

When Doug Chadwick was interviewed in 1994 for a deputy position at the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, he was asked how far he saw himself going in his career. He answered “sheriff.”  

Chadwick, 53, may have not believed his own statement during the interview, but it landed him that entry-level deputy job, he said. Almost 30 years later, Chadwick is only one step away: The current undersheriff is one of two candidates running for the top spot in the Nov. 7 general election. 

Voters will choose between Chadwick — a lifelong Whatcom County resident driven by a traditional view of law enforcement responsibilities and decades of experience in the sheriff’s office — and Blaine Police Chief Donnell “Tank” Tanksley, a reform-oriented candidate with a sweeping resume.  

One of them will replace Bill Elfo, who is stepping down after 20 years as county sheriff. Chadwick touts his insider status as an advantage. 

“I think in order to be sheriff and represent those communities, you need to have an understanding of some of the history and just have those community connections,” Chadwick said.  

Representing community sentiments and upholding state laws have become a balancing act for elected sheriffs in recent years.  

Sheriffs in 13 of 39 Washington counties said they would not enforce an array of new gun regulations, passed in 2018 with nearly 60% of the vote, because the sheriffs deemed those laws unconstitutional. Some law enforcement officials have also spoken out about recent police reform initiatives, such as the 2021 pursuit law.

Chadwick emphasized that under his leadership, the sheriff’s office would uphold all laws. 

“At the end of the day, we’re law enforcement officers,” Chadwick said. “We enforce the law. We don’t make decisions on the constitutionality of a law — that is for judges to decide.” 

Why sheriff? 

Chadwick wants the job to continue serving the community he was raised in. He grew up in the Mount Baker foothills and graduated from Western Washington University in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. 

Chadwick and his wife of 20 years, Lara, raised their two kids in Whatcom County. He has worked in the sheriff’s office for 29 years, becoming undersheriff in 2019. Before that, he served as the office’s chief deputy of the Bureau of Law Enforcement and Investigative Services, lieutenant of patrol operations, patrol sergeant, firearms instructor, task force officer, narcotics detective and more.  

Whatcom County sheriff candidate Doug Chadwick speaks into a mic.
Whatcom County sheriff candidate Doug Chadwick speaks at the Bellingham Yacht Club Aug. 23. (Andy Bronson/Cascadia Daily News)

“We’re looking for a sheriff that can continue with the high-quality people that we’re able to keep motivated in the organization,” said outgoing Sheriff Elfo, who has endorsed Chadwick’s campaign.  

Chadwick said an “understanding of the sheriff’s office and how complex it is,” sets him apart from his opponent.  

“It’s very different than a police department,” Chadwick said during a scheduled interview with CDN’s editorial board. “[In a] police department, you have responsibility for law enforcement. In the sheriff’s office, we have law enforcement, we have corrections, we have emergency management, search and rescue, civil function.” 

Like Chadwick’s opponent Tanksley, Elfo was Blaine’s police chief prior to being elected sheriff in 2003. 

“One of the disadvantages I was at was not having any experience in corrections or any real experience in emergency management, which is a very, very important part of the job,” Elfo said. 

Coming into the office without preconceived notions of the people who worked there was an advantage when dealing with personnel issues, Elfo said, but he doesn’t think that’s applicable today. 

Andrew Reding, chair of the Whatcom Democrats, disagrees. A candidate with more varied experience has the potential to improve the sheriff’s office by bringing outside perspectives in, Reding said. 

It’s a strength “to be able to both reaffirm what’s working and to identify opportunities for innovation and improvement,” Reding said.  

Leadership priorities 

Chadwick identified some of the same hot-button issues community members cited as his top priorities. One glaring crisis in Whatcom County: drug addiction.  

“I think we have a drug epidemic in our community,” Chadwick said. “And like I said, it’s a complex problem. We are seeing far, far too many overdoses, specifically fentanyl overdoses.” 

Chadwick wants to better staff the Whatcom Gang and Drug Task Force, which addresses drug-related crimes and is under the sheriff’s purview.  

He also wants to work with the county Health and Community Services department to help connect people to addiction services.  

While Chadwick has been reared under Elfo’s office since 2003, he said he differs from his superior when it comes to the intersection of policing and providing services.  

Chadwick pointed to homelessness and behavioral health, which are not necessarily law enforcement issues, “but certainly we need to be involved in those conversations because they impact the root causes of crime.” 

He supports a “co-responder model” in which law enforcement officers and behavioral health specialists respond to calls together, and has worked on a behavioral health deputy program.  

The model would build upon programs already implemented in the county, such as the Alternative Response Team that responds to nonviolent behavioral health 911 calls.  

“Ideally, [behavioral health specialists] would respond at the same time with us,” Chadwick told Cascadia Daily News. “And then once things are stabilized, one of us can leave and the other one can finish the job that’s needed.” 

The co-responder model is unpopular among progressive and treatment-oriented groups such as No Whatcom Jails, which does not support “any model that involves policing as a response to these issues.”  

“Instead, we want to emphasize the importance of re-investing funds into non-carceral and no-barrier community services,” the group wrote in a statement to CDN.  

Supporting a new jail 

Chadwick firmly supports a new Whatcom County Jail. The argument of providing treatment versus a new jail is “not an ‘or,’ it’s an ‘and,’” Chadwick told Cascadia Daily News.  

“We need treatment, and we need a new jail,” he said, “so I would say I would certainly advocate for a new jail — not so that we can arrest more people, but so that we could address public safety concerns, and then help those people in the best way possible.” 

Some community members and organizations such as No Whatcom Jails argue strongly that it’s inappropriate to link funding for a larger jail with community-based services. But Chadwick said he would support a facility adjacent to the jail for people who are newly released. This facility would provide temporary shelter, food and counseling services to create what Chadwick calls a “warm hand-off” to whatever comes next for that individual. 

Another goal of Chadwick’s is improving the county’s emergency management when it comes to natural and human-made disasters. He said he wants to enhance preparedness for these situations — a goal that involves hiring additional staff, and something he has been pushing for after the county’s floods in 2021. 

Of achieving those priorities, Chadwick put simply: “We do all that by treating people with dignity and respect.”  

Chadwick had raised $71,573 for his campaign as of Tuesday, Sept. 19, and Tanksley had raised $63,312.

Chadwick is endorsed by a number of organizations and elected officials, including Teamsters Local 231, Whatcom County Association of Realtors, and the mayors of Lynden, Sumas and Nooksack. 

The candidate had been endorsed by the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, but that group rescinded its endorsement at a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 18, council President Karl de Jong confirmed. 

This story was updated at 12:35 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23, with new information about Doug Chadwick’s endorsements.

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