Week nine of the Sky Valley Citizens Academy featured a complete account of what it’s like to work a police investigation from the moment a crime occurs all the way through the prosecution stage.
The academy, which is being presented by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, takes place from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. every Thursday at Sultan Middle School. The 13-week series was coordinated by Sultan Police Chief Monte Beaton, and is being facilitated by Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office East Precinct Detective Danny Pitocco. Each week the academy focuses on different areas of law enforcement, including patrol, collisions, K-9 enforcement, drugs and gangs, domestic violence and much more.
Approximately 60 citizens signed up for the free academy, with attendance fluctuating slightly each week.
Last week included presentations by Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Detectives Kendra Conley and Dave Fontenot, along with Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe, who kept academy attendees actively engaged until 10 p.m., 30 minutes past the academy’s usual end time.
All academy instructors participate on a volunteer basis.
Detective Pitocco introduced detectives Conley and Fontenot, both of whom are Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office detectives who originally worked for the city of Snohomish Police Department. The pair transitioned over to the sheriff’s office when Snohomish became a contract city in 2012.
“Both of these fine officers are excellent, excellent investigators,” said Pitocco. “They don’t give up; they’re pit bulls.”
Fontenot, who has over 20 years of experience in law enforcement, has been doing investigations for 10 years. He has been partnered with 12-year veteran Conley for over four years.
“Frankly, I spend more time with her than I think I spend with anybody, including my family,” said Fontenot.
The detectives handle all manner of criminal investigations including everything from check fraud to homicide. They are on-call 24 hours a day, and also are a part of the Snohomish County Multi Agency Response Team (SMART), which is a group of detectives designated to investigate all major incidents involving Snohomish County law enforcement personnel.
Officer involved shootings, fatality incidents and all serious injury events involving a law enforcement officer are investigated by the SMART team.
In addition to being a skilled investigator, Detective Conley is also known for her expertise in crisis training. Along with Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jeff Ross, Detective Conley was involved in developing a Crisis Intervention Training program, and advocating strongly for all Snohomish County first responders to undergo this training.
She has been recognized for helping to facilitate the decriminalization of mental illness. In 2010 she was honored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness which presented her with the Distinguished Criminal Justice Award. Conley received the recognition jointly with Deputy Ross.
A graduate of Bothell High School, Conley was one of 117 nominees in the category of Best Looking Police Officer in KING 5’s 2013 Best of Western Washington contest.
Conley and Fontenot discussed the procedural aspects of their job, pointing out that investigation techniques utilized in serious crimes are often the same techniques employed in cases of fraud or forgery. They emphasized the importance of being methodical while working, and also pointed out that, in investigations, the initial crime scene analysis is their one shot to collect every conceivable piece of evidence possible.
“We only get one shot,” said Fontenot. “That shot has to be able to tell a story because I’m going write all that down and then I’m going to give it to someone who wasn’t there.”
Fontenot and Conley described two intense crime scenes that they investigated from start to finish, including a stabbing incident which took place at Snohomish High School in October of 2011. Two young girls were stabbed by another student who was suffering from mental issues.
One of the girls nearly died as a result of the attack. Conley shared that it was quite literally against all odds that the young student survived.
“It was one of those cases that changed me forever,” said Conley.
They also gave a spirited account of an incident that occurred right after their transition over to the sheriff’s office. It was a snowy morning in January of 2012, and two masked gunmen in a white car had held up Vic’s Market in Snohomish. Conley and Fontenot worked the case and soon came up with a lead on the vehicle as well as an address of interest.
Conley and Fontenot decided to take a peek on their way home, after assuring their new boss, Lt. John Flood, that they were only doing a quick drive-by to see if they could locate any clues as to the identity of the masked gunmen. They told him, “We don’t need any overtime and we don’t need any help.”
Upon arrival at the address, they discovered the car they were looking for stuck in a ditch, surrounded by eight people working to liberate it from its snowy confines. Among the eight were the two robbery suspects, and at that point, one of the suspects barricaded himself inside the home. A snowy standoff ensued, and the Snohomish County Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team arrived for backup.
“So the best part is our brand new boss, we find out, is on the SWAT team,” said Conley. “He gets there and the first thing he says to me is, ‘What the hell happened?’”
Eventually, after several hours, the suspect surrendered and was taken to Snohomish County Jail.
Also well-versed in narcotics investigation, in 2011 Detectives Fontenot and Conley spearheaded an aggressive campaign targeting known Snohomish-area drug dealers.
An effective team, Detective Fontenot and Conley were awarded with letters of commendation in 2012.
They discussed their role with the SMART team, and the importance of documentation and keeping investigations both clear and available. Conley stated that they focus on being as transparent as possible when investigating any case involving the use of force by a police officer.
“It’s very important that it’s highly impartial,” said Fontenot. “No matter what you read in the paper, it is highly impartial.”
He stated that all investigations are a process of examining facts and following the information, no matter where it takes them.
“That’s part of being assigned to that team,” said Fontenot.
Snohomish County Prosecutor Roe began his discussion where Fontenot and Conley left off with the SMART team investigations. A critical function of the SMART team, Roe explained, is to perform intense investigations which are completely unbiased.
“Since the SMART team was created, all of the investigations of all the officer involved shootings, whether they’re fatalities or not, have come to me to review,” said Roe.
He stated that the cases of police corruption involving cover-ups which are often portrayed on television and in movies do not give an accurate assessment of what actually occurs.
“In the real world that I’ve been in for 27 years, I have yet to see an investigation or an example where I saw any evidence that cops were covering up for other cops,” said Roe.
A University of Washington graduate, Roe has been with the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office for 27 years. He has served as the elected Snohomish County Prosecutor since 2010 and will be seeking re-election this fall. He shared that his initial inspiration in becoming a lawyer was his older sister, Becky, who was a deputy prosecutor in King County.
Roe shared some truth about his humbling first courtroom experience which took place in the South District Court located in Lynnwood.
“I was absolutely horrible,” said Roe. “I sucked so bad at what I was trying to do up there as a lawyer.”
To Roe, it was a grim realization.
“Not only do I suck, but it’s not any fun,” said Roe, remembering the conversation he had with himself at the time.
He recalled that he really had to take a step back, and carefully examine the situation. When he did so, he discovered that he was simply trying too hard to be a lawyer. A bartender all through college and law school, he knew that he was an adept communicator.
At that point, Roe said that he decided to incorporate the same communications skills he had cultivated as a bartender and merge those skills with his developing technique as a lawyer. It was a strategy that turned out to be successful.
“I’ve kind of been sticking with that for the last 27 years,” said Roe.
Roe took questions from academy attendees until 10 p.m. last week.
Gold Bar resident Calvin Humphreys, who has been attending the academy every week since it started on February 6, has appreciated presentations from a very diverse range of participants. The academy has featured commanders, patrol officers, detectives, sergeants and everything in between. He explained that having the opportunity to experience so many different police officers on such a human level has resulted in a profound shift in his perspectives about the men and women of law enforcement.
“The experience is a life changing event for me,” said Humphreys.
The fact that academy presenters often provide details about dangerous situations they have personally experienced has left an impression on Humphreys, who finds it remarkable that there are those who willingly place themselves in harm’s way just to do a job.
He has also connected with facilitators Pitocco and Beaton’s military backgrounds; all three men served in the United States Marine Corps. In addition to being very personable, Pitocco is an animated and lively speaker, which is something that Humphreys and other attendees have enjoyed.
“I never thought the day would come that I felt concern for law enforcement officers,” said Humphreys. “The two sheriff’s officers that have been with us through class are people I’ve grown fond of.”
The Sky Valley Citizens Academy will hold its final session on May 1 and will include a graduation ceremony for academy participants with Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary in attendance.