Whatcom County will have a new sheriff next year, after Bill Elfo said in March that he wouldn’t seek a sixth term after two decades in office.
Challenging for the job are Undersheriff Doug Chadwick, who’s been with the Sheriff’s Office for 29 years, and Blaine Police Chief Donnell Tanksley.
While most U.S. cities have police chiefs who are hired by a mayor, city manager or City Council, almost all county sheriffs are elected under a tradition that dates to the 1600s, according to Sheriff.org.
Sheriff is a four-year term and pays $17,557 monthly ($210,684 annually) starting Jan. 1, according to the Whatcom County Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials.
The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for law enforcement in unincorporated areas outside cities, operating the jail, maintaining a search and rescue team, and providing emergency management and planning.
Candidates are listed in the order that they appear on the ballot.
Blaine Police Chief Donnell Tanksley, known as “Tank,” has a four-decade career in law enforcement and the U.S. military.
Tanksley is a Navy and Air Force veteran, retiring as a first sergeant. He has a master’s degree in management from Fontbonne University in St. Louis, a bachelor’s degree in management from National Louis University, and associate’s degrees in criminal Justice and human resource management.
After the service, he was hired by the St. Louis Police Department and rose through the ranks to lieutenant.
Before he became chief in Blaine, Tanksley was chief of the Portland State University police and assistant chief of Western Washington University police. He’s served on the Whatcom Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Mount Baker Foundation and the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force.
He grew up in Ferguson, Mo., which made national news because of social unrest that followed the fatal police shooting of a Black man in 2014, Michael Brown. Racial injustice that he experienced there shaped his career in law enforcement, Tanksley told the audience at a recent Bellingham City Club election forum.
“I believe in policing that we certainly have to make sure that people are held accountable to ensure that we have the rule of law. But we also have to make sure that as police officers that we treat people with dignity, we treat people with compassion and we build trust among people,” he said.
Tanksley emphasized his education, training and experience in an email to The Bellingham Herald.
“I bring broad leadership, strong experience, and a fresh perspective — this enables me to lead, work with the entire community to deliver services, and bring everyone together to solve the bigger problems we face such as a proliferation of dangerous drugs, increased homelessness, concern with the jail, and a better, more coordinated response to the next emergency. These are problems that have grown under the current administration and I hear from people that they are ready for change,” he said.
If elected, he said he would ensure that all deputies are highly trained in crisis intervention and have resources to address mental illness. He emphasized the doctrine of fair and impartial policing to reduce crime and build trust with the community, and said he would reach out to nonprofit groups, government officials, and community members to reduce homelessness, “treating all with compassion and dignity.”
Tanksley said that because of career advances he is comfortable taking command in a new position.
“Three times I have stepped up to help lead other law-enforcement agencies and every time building trust has been my first focus. To achieve this, I foster a work environment where employee health — including mental health — and job satisfaction are centered,” he told The Herald.
In 2022 and 2023, he secured a total of $80,000 in grants from the Criminal Justice Training Commission to fund fitness, wellness and confidential counseling services for officers and staff.
“Valued employees are productive employees, which improves retention. One way we can get where we need to go is to have more opportunities for advancement, mentorship, and relevant training. I will also seek diversity in our workforce by making sure these jobs are appealing to those who want a rewarding career helping others,” Tanksley said.
Tanksley is endorsed by the Whatcom Democrats, all six legislators in the 40th and 42nd districts, Lummi Nation and the Nooksack Indian Tribe. He’s also received support from County Executive Satpal Sidhu, six members of the Blaine City Council, the entire Bellingham City Council and several other local elected officials, including County Council members Carol Frazey, Barry Buchanan and Kaylee Galloway. Additional support comes from the Riveters Collective, Planned Parenthood, the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, and several labor unions, among others.
Tanksley has raised $92,421 for his campaign, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Undersheriff Doug Chadwick has served 29 years with the Sheriff’s Office and has been undersheriff since 2019, when he was promoted from chief criminal deputy.
Chadwick has been assigned several roles within the Sheriff’s Office, including patrol lieutenant and sergeant, firearms Instructor, narcotics detective; Drug Enforcement Agency Task Force agent, and field training officer. He has spent the past 16 years in management and executive positions.
“During the first 90 days, I would focus on issues that bring our community together, I would focus on establishing town hall (meetings) so that we can listen to what the community has to say,” he told a League of Women Voters forum.
He has a bachelor of science degree in biology form Western Washington University and graduated from the FBI National Academy the FBI Command Institute and the Performance Leadership Institute.
In addition, he served on the Whatcom Community College Criminal Justice Advisory Committee and is an adjunct instructor. He serves on the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force and is a past president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Matt Herzog Memorial Lodge. In the community, he is a past president of the Lynden Toastmasters Club, and a youth coach for soccer, football and rugby.
Sheriff Bill Elfo endorsed his second-in-command in a March statement.
“(Chadwick) has been a critical factor in our ability to provide exemplary law enforcement, search-and-rescue, corrections, and emergency management services to Whatcom County residents. His knowledge and experience make him the most qualified person to take the Sheriff’s Office to the next level of excellence,” Elfo said.
In an email to The Herald, Chadwick said he has earned respect from public-safety officials across Whatcom County.
“I am grateful to have received a wide range of support for my candidacy. Over my 29-year career with the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, I have developed strong relationships with the other local, state and federal law enforcement partners that we work with on a regular basis. This includes area fire and EMS personnel, both line level and leadership staff, that know my history and commitment to working towards common goals,” Chadwick said.
If he’s elected sheriff, Chadwick told The Herald that he would prioritize “reducing crime and increasing public safety through actions and services that seek justice for victims, help our most vulnerable and hold those that prey on others accountable.”
He also would work with community leaders to design and build a modern jail, and work to reduce fentanyl distribution and use.
“The first step at addressing most of the major issues impacting our community will involve aggressively targeting drug-trafficking organizations. The increased supply of fentanyl and methamphetamine in our area is driving increases in crime, increased homelessness and contributing to persons in crisis related to mental health and drug addiction,” he said.
Assuming a ballot measure to fund a new jail passes on Tuesday, Chadwick told The Herald he will advocate for an adjacent “homeless navigation center” to provide a “warm handoff” to post-incarceration services such as temporary housing, job placement, housing assistance and counseling and treatment services and referrals.
In addition to having Elfo’s support, Chadwick is endorsed by the Whatcom Republicans and several elected leaders, including former Sheriff Dale Brandland, the mayors of Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas, County Council members Ben Elenbaas, Tyler Byrd and Kathy Kershner, and former Whatcom County executives Peter Kremen and Jack Louws.
Chadwick also has endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police Matt Herzog Memorial Lodge No. 24 and its Sheriff’s Office Management Group and Sheriff’s Office Correction Management Group, the Whatcom County Corrections Deputy Association, the Associated General Contractors of Washington BUILD-PAC, the Whatcom County Association of Realtor and the Whatcom County District 7 Firefighters.
He has raised $93,144 for his campaign, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission.
All voting is by mail in Washington state. Ballots must be postmarked — not simply placed in the mail — by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, to be counted. Ballots can also be placed in official ballot drop boxes that will be locked when polling closes.