Sean Swope commentary: There should never be a time when a 911 call goes unanswered


In recent weeks, I have received alarming reports from two residents of Lewis County who, in moments of critical need, called 911 only to be routed to voicemail.

Imagine facing a life-threatening emergency, such as a house fire, overdose, car wreck or robbery, and finding that your call for help is not answered.

This shocking situation is the result of staffing shortages and high call volumes, which are overwhelming our public safety system.

Last year, our county’s 911 call center received an astounding 47,812 calls. Of these, 15,112 were directed to the Centralia Police Department. This staggering volume highlights the immense pressure on our public safety infrastructure.

Our 911 call center is staffed by excellent, committed professionals who are dedicated to serving our community. Despite their dedication and professionalism, they are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of calls, making it clear that they need more support to continue their vital work.

A deeper dive into the data from Centralia reveals troubling trends, particularly in police reports related to trespassing. Initially, trespassing may not seem like a 911-level emergency. However, businesses often perceive such incidents as severe enough to warrant urgent police intervention due to the risks they pose to staff and customers.

In Centralia alone, there were 1,005 criminal trespass reports over the past year. Among these, a small number of transient individuals were responsible for a disproportionate amount of police encounters, many of which included serious offenses such as drug overdoses, theft, harassment and disorderly conduct.

For example, one individual had 28 encounters with the police, involving overdose, theft and other serious crimes. This pattern is repeated with other individuals, highlighting a significant burden on our police force.

Centralia’s police activity logs for the past year show numerous incidents related to transient individuals, including slashing tires, assault, drug offenses and public defecation. These incidents are not only a strain on our public safety resources but also a major concern for local businesses and residents.

Many businesses have left or are planning to leave due to the constant issues with vandalism, theft and human waste. One of the largest sales tax producers for the city of Centralia is counting down the days until they leave because of the break-ins, human feces, drug paraphernalia and the pervasive smell of urine they continually have to deal with. Parents avoid parks and downtown areas, leading to a noticeable deterioration in our community’s quality of life.

Our transient population often receives financial aid, such as supplemental security income, but many refuse services that require accountability or treatment for mental health and addiction. Despite the efforts of the Centralia Police Department and service providers to offer help, the majority of individuals decline assistance.

Centralia’s police activity press log for the past year provides further insights: 331 encounters were with individuals from Lewis County, 164 from other locations in Washington state, 48 from out of state and 283 had unknown locations.

These encounters often involved serious offenses like slashing tires, assault, drug-related crimes, defecating in public, harassment, theft and more. The transient population’s impact on our community is profound and widespread.

This situation has dire consequences for our first responders.

Lewis County is below the national average for law enforcement officers per 100,000 residents, and this shortage extends to firefighters, paramedics and nurses. Washington state ranks near the bottom in the U.S. for public safety personnel, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic, during which many were forced out of their jobs despite being hailed as heroes.

Over the last few years, I have worked with first responders and key stakeholders to develop ordinances that provide more tools to ensure public safety. Those ordinances help address some of our local challenges, including unauthorized RV parking and camping, homeless encampment cleanups and removals, needle exchange oversight and trespassing.

My focus is on stopping the flow of taxpayer money toward destructive tendencies that yield no accountability — and have no metric of successful outcomes — and to instead direct that funding toward efforts to support our network of first responders. We must provide them with the resources they need to protect our families and businesses.

I am committed to doing everything I can to protect our families and businesses by giving our first responders the tools and resources they need to ensure our public safety. Looking ahead, there will be opportunities to invest in our public safety system. I urge the community to seriously consider these opportunities. There should never be a time when a 911 call in a moment of crisis goes unanswered. Let’s work together to ensure that our public safety system is robust and responsive, safeguarding the well-being of all residents in Lewis County today and for the future.


Sean Swope is a Lewis County commissioner. Opponents of Swope in the upcoming primary election are welcome to submit a commentary of their own for publication. Email Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Eric Schwartz at for details.